Riding the Flybug of Slow Burn Queer Romance With Intergalactic Conspiracies as the Backdrop
We take for granted sometimes how refreshing a simple story can be. Amidst gritty remakes and a proliferation of hard sci-fi and fantasy, there are stories that float between these — offering that complicated, edgy vibe, and a straightforward plot.
Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell follows Prince Kiem Tegnar of the Iskat Empire and Thean diplomat Count Jainan nav Adessari of the Feria clan, whose forced marriage was meant to help keep the peace between the Empire and its vassal planets, and solidify a treaty pertinent to the system’s survival.
There’s a simplicity to Winter’s Orbit that is enthralling if one can hold off on preconceived ideas of what it’s supposed to be, and will definitely be marred by demanding tastes. While the arc involves interplanetary schemes fraught with political intrigue and personal hurdles, the story is more of an examination of how the characters deal with the situations they find themselves in. To demand more from it will complicate the experience and so this book urges us to sit back, relax, and just let it happen.
Gluten-free space opera worldbuilding that works
There’s no illusion of intricacy in Winter’s Orbit as a space opera — it’s a dense world that has within it cultures and rules of etiquette that are decidedly disparate from each other, and personalities that can more or less clash in imperial court if the circumstances didn’t necessitate diplomacy.
The details of worldbuilding can be seen in something as simple as the Iskat cuisine and their rigid meal courses: It starts with salty hors d'oeuvres, then tea to cleanse the palette, followed by a sweet-savoury appetizer course. Finally, a mild course or what can be assumed as their plat principal with bread and rice, then perhaps coffee just to round it all up.
Of particular interest is also how gender is expressed through accessories that should be visible to everyone they meet like bracelets or pins. In Iskat, those who identify as men wear ones that are made of wood, women wear flint, and glass for non-binary. On more than one occasion, Jainan would puzzle about another’s gender as he scrambles to look for these accessories, and Kiem who had a discordant experience as he almost misgendered a Thean citizen because he only had his own culture to base off of.
However there’s no hand-holding so you can keep up with its world, no need for sheets and post-its. In fact, the book drops us right in the middle of a political conundrum in the first chapter as the Emperor — Kiem’s grandmother — has just commanded the Prince to carry out his duty by marrying the just widowed Count Jainan, and help convince the Resolution that the relationship between Iskat and Thea is stable.
Whether intentional or not, the space opera worldbuilding was presented rather sparsely, effectively turning it into more of the backdrop rather than an actor in the story. So while there are all these intricacies in how the world functions, there was no deep-dive into it. It has to be said though that the choice not to delve into the details of worldbuilding meant that we, too, are like Jainan who has to straddle between the cultures and traditions we’re being presented with the most and those being introduced now and then in the story. This isn’t a fault worth nitpicking because it works, being given more than what’s dispensed in the book would’ve been a distraction to the actual plot driver.
Slow burn mutual pining of the introspective one and the sunshine one
What can be appreciated about the book is it wasn’t pretending not to be a romance story first and foremost. So much of what made it such an enjoyable read is because of the relationship between its main characters, their reactions to every curveball being thrown at them, and indeed their progression from strangers to friends to eventual lovers.
Of course, any slow burn mutual pining story savant would know that it’s the yearning and hurt/comfort that makes it all the more enticing than the inevitable destination.
Kiem and Jainan’s relationship is rife with hindrances that keep them from truly realising the other’s desires. There were scenes where Kiem feels a tinge of hurt whenever Jainan makes obvious effort to distance himself from him. Jainan on the other hand grapples with his own feelings for Kiem especially during moments where the Prince would go out of his way to make him feel cared for and welcome, a feeling that’s depressingly alien to him. In these instances, both have made the assumption that the only reason the other is tolerating them is because of their political duties to the Empire, a true breeding ground of misunderstandings magnified by their personal issues.
But more than the pining, what makes Kiem and Jainan such a compelling couple are all the things that make them different from each other. Their role in the stability of the Empire is in truth the only similarity they have between them.
Prince Kiem is what most fic readers might call the ‘sunshine one’, personable and engaging, the type who always knows someone when he enters a room. Jainan couldn’t have been more different as the awkward and introspective one of the two, a stickler for social etiquette and court rules, quiet but intense. Nevertheless, it’s obviously these differences that make their dynamic work especially at pivotal moments where they have to untangle and navigate efficiently the political machinations that are undermining the Empire.
Fic language and the treatment of darker subject matters
A lot of published authors have found a foothold first on fic platforms like Archive of Our Own (AO3), a repository of stories both original and fan made, and where Winter’s Orbit was first given life by Maxwell. Regardless of whether the reader is used to fic tagging and language, there are tropes that are associated, oddly enough, mainly to fanfiction that are evident in the book. As a matter of fact, it can be summed up using AO3 tags like There Was Only One Bed, Slow Burn, Mutual Pining, Angst, Hurt/Comfort, etc.
However, and this is something people who criticise fic writing as an art don’t quite grasp, the writing culture in these platforms have allowed so many to explore themes and styles, filtered through a specific lens which may not have worked had it not been for the unique learning experience brought by it.
In the book, this became essential as it dealt with the nature of Jainan’s past relationship with the deceased Prince Taam. Major content warning for those who haven’t read it, but the story at first sprinkles hints of it in such a way that one would only speculate and not conclude that the Count experienced domestic abuse. And even as it was fully revealed, there was careful and respectful treatment to it that it wasn’t jarring and triggering. In a way — and this is also how some fics write about this subject matter — by orienting the reader early to this much darker theme through narrative bread crumbs, it was giving the reader an out.
On the whole, Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell is a science fiction story where the relationships between characters are more integral to the plot than the world they’re all moving in, with romance as its main foundation. It’s a story that tells us that everyone has unique strengths and capabilities, we only have to find where they can be better applied, and that escaping murkier pasts is possible and eventually will stop dictating how we get to live our life beyond it.