Review: Winter's Orbit by Everina Maxwell
Publication Date: February 2, 2021
Attributes: adult fiction, novel, space opera, intergalactic politics, queernormative world, cis gay m/m romance
Content warnings: past intimate partner violence and extensive-but-not-graphic flashbacks
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Tor Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.
Warning: I'm just going to go ahead and straight-up spoil all of the “plot twists” in this review, because I wish I'd known about them before I started reading it. If you're a “no-spoilers” person, I recommend skipping this review.
I don't know how to eat this book.
It's a perfectly functional book. Good — even great. The character work is spotless, and incredibly fun to boot; the politics and worldbuilding are interesting enough to support an intrigue plot but simple enough to avoid boring, convoluted storytelling. It approaches silly romantic tropes (arranged marriage, stranded in the wilderness, only one bed!) with humor and sincerity. It's a space opera with a central gay romance, a queernormative world, and a cast of mostly queer characters.
But it's also, above all other things, a trauma recovery narrative. The climax of the book hinges on kidnappers using a military torture technology to force one character to relive emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of his ex-husband. His new husband has to dive into his mind, witness memories of the abuse, and convince him that he's loved and valuable and worth saving.
If someone had told me any of that before I picked up the book, I would've gone, “Haha, wow, OK, not for me!” and simply. not read the book.
Hopefully this review will equip others with the knowledge necessary to go “whoa there, no thanks!” And I think a lot of people are going to, rightfully, love this book. Hopefully people who read this review and think, “That sounds really interesting, actually!” will also find it.
Caveat: Film Crit Hulk talks a lot about how a lot of criticism isn't “this is bad” or “this didn't work” — it's more often, “this wasn't for me.” And that's where I'm at with this one.
I read a lot of trauma recovery narratives. I might even say they're one of my favorite forms of storytelling, especially in SFF. (Some of my recent favorites include Her Silhouette Drawn in Water by Vylar Kaftan and the Murderbot series by Martha Wells.)
So it's not a “I don't like this type of story at all” response — I love this type of story! This book, in the character sense, handled the intimate partner violence very well. It's not crass or exploitative. The psychology is there. But my God, did I hate nearly everything about this book's plot-level approach to trauma.
Winter's Orbit stars Jainan and Kiem, a planetary ambassador and a reformed fuck-up prince who are forced into a diplomatic marriage after the suspicious death of Jainan's husband. It's part awkward, miscommunicated romance and part murder investigation, as the husbands discover that Jainan's dead ex, Taam, was murdered because of his involvement in some shady military plot.
It becomes obvious early on that Taam abused Jainan. Jainan accepts massive violations of personhood as normal. Kiem is in turns oblivious, appalled, and confused that Jainan would expect Kiem to treat him so poorly.
Because the story is told in alternating third person, we see both Jainan's expectations and Kiem's bewilderment. Jainan's psychology post-emotional abuse is textbook accurate, and extremely well handled.
But! Here's the thing. Large sections of the book are from his POV. But he never, ever thinks about Taam's abuse; the POV exclusively focuses on Jainan's emotional response to Kiem. The result? Inadvertently treats abuse as a final-act “reveal.”
Blah. Writers do this a lot. It has literally never worked for me. Often, it's just lazy storytelling, because it allows writers to avoid dealing with character psychology conflicts that might interfere with their plot. In this specific case, I don't think that problem exists: Jainan's actions are totally consistent with those past experiences, even though he does not explicitly think about the abuse.
It seems likely the book intended reflect the aftermath of emotional abuse. It phenomenally portrays the ways that abusers often manage to convince their targets that the target's own failures and inadequacies cause/justify poor treatment. When we're just seeing Jainan from Kiem's point of view, all the pieces are there.
But... This guy is three weeks out from a literal two-year-long torturous hostage situation. He's still coming to terms with it. He hasn't really recognized that Taam abused him, yet. Janain's internalized the idea that everything Taam did to him was Jainan's own fault. A lack of emotional clarity on all that? Expected. And Taam's voice is certainly there, in Jainan's head as his internal critic — always unnamed.
But Jainan never once remembers his poor treatment, even when Kiem does things that remind him of situations with Taam? He never thinks back to specific incidents, even just a raised voice or quiet threat, with enough clarity for readers to recognize what Taam did, even if Jainan himself can't quite grapple with it? He just blithely refuses to think about it, and that works? This really feels more like a plot requirement than genuine character writing — and it causes a few actual problems with the read.
(Note: I'm not saying, “we need a whole bunch of specifics,” here — this book probably even had too many specifics in its final scenes, though it was never graphic. Rather, it's that it feels disingenuous to totally elide those memories from Jainan's memory. Especially when we experience them extensively later, when it's suddenly convenient for the plot.)
Jainan's own internal POV avoidance of nearly ANY tidbit of Taam also made me doubt whether the book knew it was portraying an abusive relationship. Was Taam's behavior just going to be passed off as the actions of a shady smuggler doing what he must to keep his husband out of the loop? When Jainan used the passive voice to avoid naming people, was I just misinterpreting when I assumed that “Taam did X”? Was it actually some unrelated politician?
This points to a craft-level issue: The “Taam abused Jainan” character background and the “Taam participated in an illegal military scheme to start a war” plotlines were intertwined. Correctly so — they're related! But about 1/3 of the way through, the breadcrumbs for the abuse plot started to come off as a cynical red-herring for the intrigue plot.
The uncertainty had this reader gritting their teeth, dreading the inevitable stressful reveal.
Ultimately, the abuse was NOT a cynical red-herring, which was a relief. But the actual reveal wildly exceeded my expectations for stress-levels, and... honestly, it felt a bit trite!
First, Jainan finds out about Taam's abuse through a video that someone used to blackmail Taam. Then, when he tries to bring it up, it goes very poorly. Alright. I'm with you. Don't love plotlines where people get outed as survivors against their will, but if we're going here, I guess we're going here.
BUT THEN! The bad guys kidnap Jainan. They want to frame him for murdering Taam. So they put him in a torture device that rewrites memories. Cue at least 50 pages of reading about Jainan reliving some of his most horrifying, painful moments. This was extremely unpleasant to read.
THEN! Kiem dives into Jainan's mind to try to help him reassert reality. Kiem witnesses a bunch of Jainan's most closely guarded private moments of shame and terror. To get him out, Kiem needs to convince Jainan to recognize that they're just memories. Which requires convincing Jainan, who thinks he's worthless, to believe that he's worth rescuing, and that Jainan is actually real, and actually cares about him. Jainan succeeds! Cool!
That sure is an allegory.
It pulls itself off just well enough that I wouldn't call it a “plot-magic solution to massive amounts of trauma”. Just.
I'd probably be less miffed if this book had been marketed + discussed as a trauma recovery narrative, instead of just “squee! gay space princes romcom! I want to squish them! Why don't they just talk to each other?!” (Not a specific person: a conglomerate of literally every discussion I've seen re: this book.) I don't think that part is an issue with the book itself, really... More just a broader industry issue of how it's very difficult to sell fiction about trauma when “getting it to sell” is the main goal of marketing. And a cultural issue of the weird weird ways in which we consume and talk about traumatic material.
Normally, I wouldn't have written a review when my primary complaints about a book are pretty much just “this annoys my personal preferences, despite being technically well done.” Buuuut I kinda want to give readers more of a heads' up about what they're getting into.
So, that's that. I cannot reiterate enough that I don't think any of this was poorly done or poorly handled. Some of you are really gonna love this one. It's very readable, and charming, and emotional.
Also. I want more books like this. I love that queer space opera is getting enough energy from major publishers that they can publish something like this. I want more queernormative worlds. I want more stories that grapple with trauma, and empire, and queerness where the main conflict is not “coming out.” I want more books like this that are absolutely not for me, but will probably be mind-blowing and healing for other people. I also want queer books that I will find amazing and personal, and that a bunch of other people will hate.
It's heartening, I guess, that I can say, “this one wasn't for me” and still have a dozen or so others like it in my TBR. That wasn't anywhere near the case 5 years ago.
Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.