So, this is a book I tried some time ago as a sample and liked pretty well. And then Everina Maxwell turned up on the Hugo ballot for the Astounding Award which is their new award for best new writer, which meant that Winter’s Orbit appeared in the Hugo Voter’s packet. Since I’d already read the sample, it was an easy choice to go on with this book … especially because I strongly suspected it wasn’t the sort of novel that I’d have to think about a lot.
Basic setup: in order to solidify extremely important treaty agreements between two worlds, Prince Kiem is forced into an arranged marriage with Jainan, a representative from the other world, whose previous marriage partner, Prince Taam, just died a week ago in a flyer accident.
If you’re immediately suspicious that the flyer accident wasn’t an accident, bingo.
If you suspect broad-scale nefarious actions may be taking place surrounding this crucial treaty, you are absolutely correct.
If you expect that probably the heart of the story is a very, very slow-burn romance between Kiem and Jainan, with the murder mystery, the rest of the plot, and the worldbuilding all spiraling around that romance, you’re right on the money.
So, how does this all work?
The story is a lot of fun. I enjoyed it a ton, even though I’m super-distracted by working on Tasmakat.
Want to see how to write a really extroverted character? Here you go: that’s Kiem. Super-introverted character? Jainan.
The reader is going to be very clear that Taam was abusive as hell, but this is handled subtly enough that Kiem doesn’t seem ridiculously slow to pick up on that. A little slow, sure, but because he’s bending over backward not to pressure Jainan – whom he assumes is grieving – and also because he would never in a million years treat someone the way Taam treated Jainan, it’s plausible that he would be this slow. Plus Maxwell manages to handle Jainan in a way that makes it reasonable he wouldn’t just lay out the truth for Kiem. Especially because the truth is not super obvious. This is a great example of a horrible relationship that is drawn so deftly that it’s reasonable that Jainan isn’t sure he’s not the one at fault. And! Bonus! The horrible relationship is in the past, so thankfully the reader does not have to follow Jainan as he suffers through it. We only get glimpses; the part we see is his recovery.
Have I mentioned that I really liked both Kiem and Jainan? I really liked both Kiem and Jainan.
Okay, so, how about the plot?
Oh, a lot of the plotting is predictable, I suppose. The first time the interrogation machine is mentioned, for example, I think we can all be pretty sure someone is going to get a very close look at that machine, and sure enough. On the other hand, (a) the plot is not the heart of the story, and (b) Maxwell does a fine job ratcheting up the tension. There’s a deadline for this treaty, see, and we get one obstacle after another as that deadline approaches. I enjoyed that. I mean, no matter what, this was still not a very tense read because there is not the slightest doubt, not the slightest doubt in the world, about the ending. This is a romance, and the happily ever after is in sight right from the beginning. This is probably one reason I enjoyed the story so much.
The one thing that annoyed me was that honest to God, all kinds of people ought to have been investigating this stuff and ought to have figured out what was going on. The Emperor comes out pretty badly. Treaty, super important treaty, maybe she should have dug into this mess a whole lot more effectively. But whatever, the focus was not on the Emperor.
The one thing that pleased me the most was that an antagonist gets shifted into the non-antagonist category. I liked that. I very specifically wanted that to happen. It’s not like he turned into an important character, but when this person turned up, I thought right then that if I were writing the story, that guy would not be a bad guy. And that’s how it worked out, and that made me happy. This wasn’t as beautifully handled as, say, Barbara Hambly would have done it, but it was a detail I particularly appreciated.
My favorite moment was when I thought we were heading back to town for a heavy dose of political machinations, but had a flyer crash instead in the mountains instead. Very nice! My other favorite moment was when Bel reveals the Awful Truth about her past and Kiem is like, Can we talk about this later, important things to do, let’s go! My other favorite moment would be too much of a spoiler. I had quite a few favorite moments.
How about the writing?
It’s good. Solid. Not lyrical or anything, but that wouldn’t have suited the story. Witty dialogue from Kiem, extremely restrained, inexpressive dialogue from Jainan. That’s what carries the story. The story is in close third, shifting between the two protagonists, so practically everything is from one pov or the other and Maxwell handles that really well.
If this is the kind of story you like, you’ll enjoy it a ton. Is it reasonable that this entry put Everina Maxwell in the category for Best New Writer? Probably not. I can see why it has considerable appeal, but Best New Writer, I don’t know.
Based on your comments about nominees, I have one other book on my Kindle from this category. After I try that, I’ll probably read the first page of the other nominees and think about whether to read them. But (a) very into Tasmakat, don’t have time to read everything; and (b) not up for anything super dark, and thank you so much for your comments because that helps eliminate some really dark nominees.