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Winter's Orbit coverThere is a myth that a “literary” or “worthy” book must be in some way difficult—that a novel that is challenging to read must naturally, through the weight of its prose, also be improving. By this rubric, engaging with dense texts is a route to self-improvement. The converse also applies: a book that is easy to read and enjoyable is often dismissed as insubstantial, as lightweight, not worthy of attention; not a serious book. It would be easy to dismiss Winter’s Orbit as little more than fluff, a romance novel that just happens to be set in space. But that would be to ignore a subtle examination of power dynamics, colonial relationships, and the radical power of kindness and compassion.

The Iskat Empire is the principal civilisation in its sector, and at the centre of a complex web of treaty relationships that underpin the sector’s trade and foreign policy relationships with the rest of the galaxy. Those treaties are up for periodic renewal by an organisation called the Resolution which oversees the treaties. If their audit of Iskat’s treaties with its satellite and vassal worlds identifies any issues, the Resolution has the power to dissolve Iskat’s relationship with the rest of the galaxy. With a treaty review pending, the Iskat Empire must ensure every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed. This means fixing a recently broken link in its treaty arrangements.

In this universe, every local treaty is underpinned with an equivalent diplomatic marriage, in this case between a representative of the Iskat Empire’s royal family and a representative of the other treaty-party. Count Jainan of the minor satellite planet of Thea has been left a widower by the sudden death of his Iskan husband Prince Taam, and the treaty between his world and the Iskans therefore requires a fresh seal. Jainan is therefore quickly rushed into a new marriage with the disreputable playboy Prince Kiem ahead of the Resolution’s audit of treaty arrangements. Inevitably, the Resolution doubts the validity of this new marriage, which puts the treaty renewal under threat.

Recently and prominently seen in Bridgerton (Netflix), the Fake Relationship is a well-worn romance trope. Two people are thrown together and must—for plot reasons—pretend to be in a real relationship. But feelings develop and grow, and the fake relationship inevitably becomes a real one. It’s no surprise that Jainan and Kiem’s initial mutual attraction develops into a strong and true relationship, as they work together to solve the conspiracy behind the death of Prince Taam. Unsurprisingly, his death turns out to be murder, rather than the flyer accident it initially appeared to be.

In Everina Maxwell’s hands, these diplomatic marriages are ways of showing in microcosm the nature of the relationships between whole worlds, reflecting the maxim that the personal is political, and vice versa. Jainan and Kiem’s relationship stands for that between the Iskat Empire and Thea, just as Jainan and Taam’s did. But it is a very different kind of relationship. There is a slow reveal throughout the book that Jainan’s outwardly perfect first marriage was an abusive one, that he was the victim of both physical abuse and coercive control, and had been systematically isolated from his family and possible sources of support. Maxwell writes this with great sensitivity, drawing out Jainan’s conflicted feelings of loyalty to his first husband, and his trauma, confusion, shame, and guilt. He has been conditioned to believe that his treatment in his first marriage was his fault, and that he is a failure. This, combined with his intensely private nature, makes it difficult for him to admit to himself and others the abusive nature of his marriage, and expose Taam’s cruelty.

This first marriage mirrors the colonial relationship between the Iskat Empire and Thea, in which Thea is seen as a source of resources to exploit, and is not valued or respected by the Iskans except as a means to an end. This relationship is one of increasing discontent at the Thean end, with elements of Thean society—including Jainan’s cousin Gairad—agitating for change. The public mood on Thea is shifting, too—even in the face of threats of violent reprisals, invasion, and assimilation by Iskat. This makes the Iskan Emperor keen to settle the treaty renewal quickly, fearful of exposing tensions within the sector to the more powerful Resolution.

Jainan and Kiem’s relationship is different, though Jainan enters it expecting the dynamics of his relationship with Prince Taam to be repeated. The emotional heart of the book comes from Jainan and Kiem navigating the boundaries of their marriage and learning how to work together as a couple. Kiem mistakes Jainan’s lingering trauma at the hands of Taam for grief at the death of a much-loved husband, and endeavours to give him the space and time to mourn. The hypervigilant Jainan interprets this as rejection, and is confused why the survival strategies he’d adopted in his first marriage (compliance, self-erasure, etc.) aren’t working in his second. There is miscommunication, kindness, and compassion on both sides, but it is Kiem’s strong sense of loyalty to his new husband, and the seriousness with which he takes their marriage, that carries them through. Ultimately, both learn from each other, and grow.

Principally, the lessons they learn together are about the use and exercise of power in all its forms. Kiem is a master at fostering and using interpersonal relationships and public opinion; the more private Jainan tends to rely on his academic knowledge and intellect. Both have moments of “what would my husband do in this situation?” throughout the novel, each of which help them to solve problems and resolve previously blocked issues. This is most obvious with Kiem, who starts to apply to the messy business of politics all the emotional intelligence and social capital that he’s previously used only to manage his public image in the media. He leverages his family name and authority in ways he has never tried before, and starts to think his way towards more subtle approaches, rather than just reacting without thought. Jainan, meanwhile, has to overcome his aversion to the more public-facing aspects of his role, learning to embrace the media and public opinion, and his role as a diplomat.

Winter’s Orbit sits within a collection of works that uses the opportunities of SFF to build worlds in which LGBTQIA+ identities are normalised. Writers like Becky Chambers and Tamsyn Muir are using these settings to tell stories in which gender identity and sexuality are incidental. These are not stories about being queer; they are stories centring queer people living rich lives as fully realised people with hopes, dreams, and flaws.

This reviewer loves the way these stories depict relationships without the problematic cultural baggage and tropes that often come with Western stories featuring heterosexual romances. Heterosexual romance plots sit within a conservative cultural context that has historically assigned women to the role of reward or helpmeet, with home and family presented as the highest ideal. There is an inherent power imbalance coded into those stories. Even where those stories ostensibly centre women as main characters, their story resolution often involves compromise or embracing a traditional wife/mother/homemaker role: how often do we see romantic comedies about women giving up their career ambitions in favour of settling down in rural towns with a childhood sweetheart?

Winter’s Orbit succeeds at what it’s trying to do precisely because it centres a queer couple. The central premise of Jainan and Kiem’s relationship standing for and representing that between Thea and Iskat relies on our ability to approach it as a relationship that has space to be truly egalitarian, and that is founded on mutual respect. That is not something that can be done easily through the way that heterosexual relationships are typically framed in Western romance storytelling. Kiem and Jainan’s partnership and the way it is founded on mutual respect, compassion, and kindness is responsible for moving Iskat and Thea towards a fairer and more mutually beneficial relationship. We could all learn from that in how we approach the big issues facing the world today.

Caroline Mersey cosplays as a grown-up. When not attending or running book events, or talking about books, she binges on the latest box set while making beautiful things. You can find her on Twitter—@Liwella—and she blogs at
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25 Sep 2023

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