Read-along: Winter’s Orbit – week one

Welcome to the SciFiMonth read-along! This year, we’re buddy reading Everina Maxwell’s debut space opera Winter’s Orbit. Everyone is free to read at their own pace, with set chapters to discuss each week so we can compare notes without spoiling each other. This week, my SciFiMonth co-pilot Lisa of Dear Geek Place has set the questions as we look at the first six chapters…

Winter’s Orbit

Book cover: Winter's Orbiit - Everina MaxwellThe Iskat Empire rules its vassal planets through a system of treaties underpinned by political marriages. When Prince Taam dies in an accident, his widower Jainan is rushed into accepting irresponsible but well-meaning Prince Kiem as a replacement. There’s more than peace between two worlds at stake – if the match isn’t accepted, the Empire’s treaty with the broader Galactic community is at risk…

First up, introductions! What are your first impressions of Kiem and Jainan (and any other character who’s caught your eye)?

I got off to a very slow start, but not because of the characters. Kiem is the sort of irrepressible, well-meaning charmer it’s hard not to like – a royal human Labrador who bounds in to lick your face before he realises you’re in a job interview. Or the younger Prince Harry: all public scrapes and groupies and being in the public eye for the wrong reasons, but mostly sort of lovable.

Kiem isn’t against getting married – getting married is what the imperial family is for – but he’s not comfortable being railroaded into getting married tomorrow to a man in mourning. I wasn’t certain whether this was genuine compassion for Jainan or just reluctance to be dropped into such an awkward position (why not both?) but I was busy enjoying the Emperor, who is taking none of Kiem’s shit. Look, I’ve got a soft spot for ruthless competence – the Emperor and Bel (and yes, even the Imperial Press Officer) had me at hello.

Jainan is far more interesting (sorry Kiem). He’s a wreck holding himself together with a rigid focus on doing his duty. I’ve got a soft spot for jagged edges and stiff upper lips too; or a lot of sympathy, anyway. Still, I couldn’t help notice that by the end of chapter six, Jainan had never actually voiced how he felt about Prince Taam (or Taam’s death) – and reading between the lines, his former husband was a prick. Jainan is so certain that he can’t make Kiem happy; so determined to almost fade into the background like he’s writing himself out of reality. He doesn’t seem like a diplomatic partner so much as an abused spouse.

When it’s clear that the – incredibly handsome, charismatic – couple are physically attracted to one another, it’s all the psychological baggage that gets in the way: each is convinced the other couldn’t be attracted to him (because he’s mourning, Kiem, how inappropriate to take advantage of him; because he’s just not good enough, oh Jainan, please let someone give you a hug). My overwhelming response – and I may be doing him a disservice here; Jainan’s issues may go much further back – is a desire to punch dead Prince Taam.

…still, seems like they’ll make a great couple if they can get past all that, doesn’t it? Unless Jainan killed Taam – or has knowledge of / entanglements with whoever did – and all this awkwardness is guilt. I haven’t written anything off; I love being a suspicious reader.

How’s the setting/the cultural detail so far working for you? Anything in particular that grabs your attention?

Entirely to my liking, the world-building focus is largely on international tensions. As I put it in an early reading note this week:

“I have many questions about this handwaved bit of world building / plot railroading. Most of them start with What and continue with The Fuck. Don’t get me wrong, I like it but WHAT?”

…and the rest of the week has flirted with answering that for me. I still have so many questions about the Galactics and the Resolution; I’m still side-eyeing Iskat’s arrogant colonial attitude to Thea; but I like how this is slowly being teased out – Kiem has never given it a moment’s thought, so there’s plenty of opportunity for us to learn alongside him (and I’ve read ahead now; week two has left me very happy with how everything is developed around the plot).

One element that has become clear quickly and that I like a lot is that the society self-determines gender (and that different planets and cultures do this in different ways) and so has no strictly enforced gender roles. An Emperor or a Prince may be any gender; the cast beyond our protagonists is a good mix. I like that this is all achieved really casually – it gets little more focus than Iskat’s inappropriately named and highly aggressive birdlife – but it’s been considered and applied deftly.

I’ve had art direction on my mind a lot this month (thanks to my reaction to Dune and Foundation) so the other thing that leaps out at me is Imperial decor. In my head, the palace is all gleaming white moulded surfaces (Apple TV would love it) concealing well-designed storage and contrasted with a slightly fussy antique style when it comes to the furniture. But it’s the lack of colour that Jainan comments on in passing that fascinates me, because it’s totally at odds with my experiences of cultures based in cold, white-grey environments. If outdoors is all snow and cloud and mist, indoors is usually cosy and colourful – but not on Iskat, apparently, and I’m not quite sure yet what I should deduce from this.

Possibly nothing; I think I’m overthinking it and that the point was merely that Kiem‘s apartments were quite colourful, if partly because he hadn’t tidied up. How Kiem.

Not much time is being wasted when it comes to romantic tropes. How do you feel about romance in your SF? Yay, nay or maybe? And specifically, how do you feel about the use of those tropes here?

I make no secret of being a romance grinch. No, that’s not fair. I don’t mind a romance subplot, but if the only thing for me to engage with are romance tropes, you’ve probably lost me. I wish others joy of them; but romance is expected to deliver happily ever afters and I grew up on the bittersweet stories of Alan Garner and Katharine Kerr. I like the uncertainty of not knowing whether (and how) an author is going to break my heart.

Call me a maybe; where the yay is contingent on what else is going on. Here it seems we’ve got international diplomacy, imperial protocol, domestic unrest …and maybe murder? There’s plenty to hold my interest and it feels like the romance is worked around the plot rather than the plot being a thin excuse to deliver romance tropes, so I’m good.

But I couldn’t care less about how many beds there are and I’m entirely eye-rolling that there’s any media narrative that this is a romantic match rather than a political one. Everybody knows what’s going on, why the fuck would you ask ‘how does it feel to be married’ and ‘how happy are you’ when you know one of the newlyweds lost his last husband a month ago? I reserve my side eye for this far too accurate depiction of gossip mags.

Plot twist – and it comes on the heels of the Auditor interview… Are you intrigued by either of these developments? And what do you think of the Auditor? Impartial, or up to something?

Hooray, here comes that plot I need – and an excuse to get to the bottom of my world-building questions around the Resolution and the Empire’s internal conflicts. As the blurb gave away that Taam’s death wasn’t as accidental as it looked, this wasn’t the biggest twist (chalk up another one for don’t spoil act two in your blurb, publishers). I don’t think the Auditor is up to anything other than their exacting job: I think this is all Imperial drama with Galactic stakes.

Thoughts from around the Empire

But wait, this is a read-along – what did everybody else have to say?

Links will be added once they go live.

Don’t see your blog here? I may have missed you are joining us – add your post to the SciFiMonth master schedule and I’ll pick it up and include you here!

Reading Schedule

Everyone is free to read at their own pace, but we have set chapters to discuss each week. If you don’t have a blog, you can join the discussion via the comments on the week’s host blog or the Goodreads topic (always use spoiler tags), or start a Twitter thread and tag us in. Wherever you post, please avoid spoilers for future weeks if you read ahead (or have read it before).

  • Week 1: Beginning through Chapter Six – hosted by Lisa @ Dear Geek Place
  • Week 2: Chapter Seven – Fifteen – hosted here @ There’s Always Room For One More
  • Week 3: Chapter Sixteen – Twenty-two – hosted by Ariana @ The Quaint Book Nook
  • Week 4: Chapter Twenty-three to the end – hosted by Lisa @ Dear Geek Place

Discussion prompts will be posted by the host midweek each week. I’ll be posting on Sundays, but you can post any day that suits you – just add your link to the SciFiMonth master schedule.

Want to join us in the read-along? Jump on in!