Love, as we know, can be a pretty powerful force.
No, we’re not talking about the namby-pamby, floating on a gossamer cloud of pink fluffy nothingness that often obsesses the more romantically-inclined but the muscular, down in the trenches variety driven by searing connection and unyielding commitment that stares down the worse life can offer and comes up trumps at the end.
That’s real love in all its power, glory and lustful intensity, and it is on gloriously engrossing display in Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell, a novel which places one of the greatest love affairs you will ever have the pleasure to be party to against a jaw-droppingly invigorating space epic where lives, careers, hopes and dreams, and yes, even the fate of an entire empire hang in the balance.
It is that big and that awesome, a story that is filled with all manner of intrigue, mystery solving, realpolitik, plotting and scheming and loyalties so divided that navigating anything proves to be problematic, maybe even life threatening, beyond measure.
And yet at the centre of this immensely expansive story where civil war looms and court politics runs through impossibly arcane machinations, there sits an intensity of love that will take your breath away.
Of course, at the beginning things don’t look as starry-eyed and promising for the two main characters involved.
“He’d [Kiem] never been the focus of a ceremony before. The sound of a gong heralding things like the arrival of someone important, or a marriage, or an official appointment. Kiem had screwed up enough exams and had a bad enough reputation with the Emperor–not even counting the nightclub scandal–that nobody had ever considered giving him an important post. He’d always thought that for the best, but here he was, and there weren’t only his own concerns at stake.” (P. 41)
Count Jainan, the presentative to the court of the Iskat Empire, finds himself a widower after his husband Prince Taam is killed in unexplained circumstances.
Ordinarily tis would mean a great deal of personal pain and nothing more but the planet Jainan is from is bound into the Iskat Empire by this marriage and so its dissolution means no head of diplomatic headaches, necessitating Jainan’s speed remarriage to another courtly Prince, Kiem, a man who has a reputation for drunkenness, tomfoolery and a distinct lack of commitment to everything an aristocrat should stand for and do.
It’s hardly a match made in the heavens, and neither Jainan nor Kiem are even remotely thrilled about it at the beginning.
Any chance they have of making this arranged marriage work is complicated not simply by its rushed institution, but by the fact that the two men’s failure to make it look and seem like the real deal could spell all kinds of trouble for the Iskat Empire.
In short, it is on their marriage that all kinds of political machinations rise and fall, which is more than enough pressure for anyone, but it’s made all the more challenging by the fact that there’s a great more to Taam’s death than meets the eye, so much so in fact that there’s hardly time for a non-existent honeymoon before the two men are racing to prove Jainan’s innocence all while shadowy people are doing their utmost to prove he is as guilty as hell.
Remember, that strong and muscular love we talked about?
Well, without giving too much away, and honestly so much of this rapturously good story must be experienced sans spoilers of any kind, it comes into play in ways that will steal your breath away and which take an already invigorating story, that rests on a fearsomely constructed narrative and some stellar worldbuilding (quite literally, as it turns out), and give it a vibrancy and intimacy that make the stakes all the higher and the need for a favourable outcome against impossible odds all the more important to any reader.
It is the characters, not least Jainan and Kiem, who make Winter’s Orbit sing.
Every single person in this imaginative tale is fully-rounded and rich with fallible humanity, which matters a great deal because while the novel would still be a vibrantly told space opera, it would lack the added lustre of the humanity these characters bring to its many twists and turns.
Think of it as a blockbuster film which is rich with captivating storytelling and which also happens to have stunningly good characters; it is the perfect double, and whole you’d hope every novel would have both in pleasing balance, that’s not always the case.
But in Winter’s Orbit the characters meet the story and magic is made, with every plot twist and high-stakes politicking met with rich, raw, fervent humanity, the kind that makes it all matters and which has you turning the pages with a fire-setting intensity.
“Hold on to yourself, Jainan thought helplessly as another set of lights and emotion rose up around him. It swallowed his conscious thoughts like the sea.” (P. 337)
It is much funnier than you might be expecting.
Much of this is down to the reckless jollity of Kiem who has a quip for every conversation and quirky way of approaching everything, much to his grandmother, the Emperor’s weary exasperation.
He is a charming extrovert and where Jainan, for reasons that become heartbreakingly clear, is taciturn and unsure of himself, Kiem is garrulously fun to be around, though he is, in Maxwell’s assured character-creating hands, not without his vulnerabilities and insecurities too.
Watching these two quite different people race their way through some adrenaline-pounding action and some more thoughtful but no less intense interludes, is almost fun at times because Kiem treats much of life as a game to be conquered.
While he sobers up as Winter’s Orbit goes on, and the tensions increase, he remains the comedic heart of a story which has a lot of seriousness to handle and which benefits from the levity he brings, a levity which starts to have a transformative effect on Jainan and on the beautiful, heartstoppingly good relationship which develops between the two men.
Space opera in and of itself often rise and fall on the basis of extravagant worldbuilding, big stakes and ceaseless narrative momentum but the good ones, the really good ones, also deliver up characters so well-formed and memorable than they make the story come even more fully alive.
Winter’s Orbit is very much in the “really good ones” camp, a tale that is as big as a galaxy but as intimate as a quiet moment between feverishly invested lovers, and which consumes you in the very best ways as you wonder if the Empire will survive, but just as importantly if true love can bloom and be sustained in circumstances that seem all but inimical to it.