‘The Iskat Empire rules its vassal planets through a system of treaties – so when Prince Taam, key figure in a political alliance, is killed, a replacement must be found. His widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with the disreputable aristocrat Kiem, in a bid to keep rising hostilities between two worlds under control. But Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and when Jainan himself is a suspect, he and Kiem must navigate the perils of the Iskat court, solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war.’
The following review contains SPOILERS for Winter’s Orbit.
Winter’s Orbit introduces the reader to Kiem, a royal without any real ‘royal’ duties or position to recommend him as more than one of what is implied to be a reasonably stable and large family, and Jainan, a scholar and widower of Kiem’s cousin Taam, married to secure a treaty and maintain his people’s position within a vast alliance. While Kiem is on the more notorious side of things for enjoying a somewhat wild lifestyle, Jainan is a relative unknown (save for in academic circles), seemingly defined by his marriage to Prince Taam and his supposed assimilation into Iskat society. Shortly after Taam’s death, Kiem is summoned by his grandmother, the Emperor, and informed that he will be marrying Jainan and that there is to be no argument about it, all for the sake of ensuring that politics and the security of the empire run smoothly. Thrown together, the two try to learn how to navigate their new relationship and their role in broader political circles, while dealing with the news that Taam’s death does not appear to have been so much of an accident as has been reported.
Jainan’s behaviour has, since his marriage to Taam, become largely influenced by the abuse he has suffered at the hands of his partner, in that he has done all that he can to put his own wants, needs and interests aside and completely ignore them, simply in the hope of surviving his marriage and not drawing negative attention towards Taam. Upon meeting him, Kiem misinterprets his behaviour as distaste for him and a reluctance to be involved with him really on any level, assuming that he is still grieving for a man he loved and cared for. Unfortunately for the both of them, Kiem is primarily concerned with not making Jainan uncomfortable and giving him the space he needs, often eliminating any opportunity for them to communicate properly, as he is initially unwilling to press about why particular behaviours or actions make Jainan retreat or shut down, determined that he shouldn’t upset him any further than their arranged marriage already appears to have.
Jainan is clearly devoted to his people, having surrendered much of who he is to ensure that the treaty remains in place and that he fulfils what he believes to be his duty. One of the details that I immediately thought of after having finished the novel is that which focused on his unpacking and just how little he owns, but most importantly what he has felt he has to do to the items from his clan. These, he has crammed into a tiny box and hidden away, which, if this isn’t a metaphor for what Jainan has done to himself, I don’t know what is. He is genuinely surprised when Kiem shows an interest and essentially tells him he should be able to do whatever he wishes with their quarters to make them feel like his too, and is stunned by the invitation to display his clan flag – and that Kiem is racing ahead to try and find one to make him comfortable. He is so entirely focused on making sure that he is ‘acceptable’ and not doing anything to step outside the boundaries of what he has been taught (by Taam) is appropriate, offering up everything from his body to any form of privacy, and this, combined with the snapshots of what we see of his relationship with Taam, just makes considering what he must have endured utterly heartbreaking. In this, perhaps Kiem’s kindness is his undoing. It isn’t, as Jainan can only assume, that he’s uninterested in him, or suspicious, or willing to use him, but that he so wants him to be comfortable and for their marriage to be one in which he can be fulfilled (even if that means there being no romantic relationship) that he doesn’t want to elbow his way any further into Jainan’s life and be seen as his keeper.
Winter’s Orbit reads in a manner akin to fanfiction (unsurprising, given its origins), and as someone who grew up reading fanfiction and is still a participant in fandom, when I say this it isn’t to be dismissive of the quality of writing – quite the opposite. It’s clear that the focus of the story itself is Jainan and Kiem, and while there is significant political worldbuilding (which is something I always love), the reader’s view never really expands much beyond them – which, in my opinion, is exactly right for the style of story Winter’s Orbit is. It’s a novel about them as individuals and their relationship first and foremost; too much ‘outside’ would detract from the impact of the tale. It includes some of the typical fanfiction tropes without seeming too cliche, and is, simply, a pleasure to read. Winter’s Orbit is set in a universe in which people may marry who they wish without societal remarks about gender or preference, with gender itself being something that people of Iskat can choose to indicate without inviting comments or judgement, with titles seeming to serve for all genders equally. Though the empire’s politics are certainly questionable in many respects, the wider universe suggests a future where today’s more judgemental attitudes are eliminated and people may be free to love and be who they choose to.
Out on February 2nd, Winter’s Orbit is a book to look out for! Thank you, Orbit Books, for sending me a copy for review.