On my own I would probably not have given this novel a second glance: slated as a mix between SF and romance, I might not have considered it as the right choice for my tastes, but a couple of reviews from fellow bloggers I trust convinced me to give it a chance, and with hindsight I’m glad I did. Granted, there is an element of “fluffiness” to this story that would not normally enter into my reading parameters, but sometimes it’s a matter of the right tone for the right moment, and since I had just finished a very intense novel, a lighter one felt exactly like what I needed.
Iskat is the pivotal world in a multi-planet alliance which is in turn part of the Resolution, a galaxy-wide confederacy managed by the mysterious (and not a little weird) Auditors: to insure political stability, the inter-planetary treaties between Iskat and the other worlds are sealed by marriages, whose validity is periodically scrutinized by the Auditors. The relations between Iskat and the vassal world of Thea have never been ideal, and close to the next Auditor’s visit, the Iskan half of the political marriage, Prince Taam, dies in a flight accident: to affirm once again the ties between the two worlds, the Iskan Emperor orders a swift marriage between Prince Kiem, Taam’s cousin, and the Thean widower Jainan.
Kiem is something of a loose cannon, always involved in some kind of mischief and therefore well-known to the gossip press: he’s far from happy to be tied in marriage with a person who looks his exact opposite, and is still in mourning as well, but politics require everyone to do their duty, so the two start their married life, not without a lot of awkwardness and great difficulties in communication. As Kiem and Jainan walk the uneasy path of shared obligations, a number of details about the deceased Team seems to point toward shady deals and the suspicion that his death might not have been an accident. While political pressures mount and the clues hint at a far-ranging conspiracy, Kiem and Jainan find themselves getting closer, and more and more involved toward uncovering what might turn out to be a great danger to the stability of their area of space.
Let me start by dealing with the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. the romantic angle represented by the narrative thread that sees Kiem and Jainan move from total strangers, forced into a marriage of convenience, to lovers. This is a frequent theme wherever romance is involved, and there was no doubt, from the very start, that these two would walk in that direction: the uncomfortable personal interactions, the misunderstandings, the lack of proper communication – all these elements are the classic staples of this kind of story, as is the situation that sees them alone and in danger after a flier crash, and leads them to finally speak frankly and acknowledge their mutual attraction. I am now aware that this novel started as a work of fan fiction, and as such it contains many of the tropes that fuel this kind of work, but it is all handled with such a light touch that it’s easy to lie back and enjoy the ride, even when you know from the start where it will end, even if the transition from virtual strangers to lovers feels a little too swift.
There is however a section of the story that seems somewhat forced: Jainan is indeed the poster child for the abused spouse in a toxic marriage, including the feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy at the roots of his psychological makeup, but it seems strange that none of the abuse he suffered before ever surfaces when the story is narrated through his point of view. As a reader I saw the symptoms were there, in glaring neon light, but none of it is ever brought to the surface until the moment of the “big revelation”, that is hardly surprising for the readers, unlike what happens to the characters. And while Kiem, despite his outward recklessness, is shown as a people’s person, able to make easy connections in any social situation, he never suspects the real reason for his spouse’s self-effacing attitude until he discovers hard evidence of it. I understand the need to stretch things a bit to enhance the reveal’s impact, but I would have liked a more organic approach.
Still, despite these minor quibbles, the overall story turned out to be quite enjoyable, presenting a galactic milieu where economic and military interests are at odds with each other, and where politics can be dangerously cut-throat: of course the background takes second place to Kiem and Jainan’s journey, and sometimes the details of this world are shunted to the sidelines in favor of the main story, to the point I sorely missed a closer look at this galactic empire and its many intriguing customs, like the one where gender identity is expressed through the materials employed in ornaments, which in turn made me wonder whether there are no other distinguishing factors that point to an individual’s gender. This detail is not explained and it remains one of my top curiosities about the novel, and the main reason I remain somewhat dissatisfied with the background, even though the overall flavor of the book reminds me somewhat of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan universe, which in turn makes me feel quite at home, thanks to the blend between the serious and the humorous that lends a very pleasant quality to the story.
I don’t know if Winter’s Orbit is a stand-alone novel or the first in a series, but I hope on the latter because I would not mind a deeper exploration of the setting – maybe with a little less romance 😉 – and a focus on some of the secondary characters, like Kiem’s amazing assistant Bel, to get a wider and deeper understanding of this version of humanity’s future.