WINTER’S ORBIT by Everina Maxwell
Orbit p/b £8.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This novel is in part a love story, a whodunnit, a political thriller and a science-fiction story. It is also beautifully written. There’s nothing quite like value for money, is there?
Prince Taam has only been dead a month in a flybug accident, but here is the Emperor intimidating Prince Kiem, her least favourite grandchild into marrying his bereaved partner. Now herein lies the first challenge of this tale: gender is fluid in the Empire, with each individual defining their sexual nature by items of jewellery. It is surprising how quickly the reader accepts this novelty. It is a wonder this form of social definition is not more common within the genre.
The Emperor needs to ensure that Taam’s partner, Count Jainan, the Thean goodwill representative to the Empire of Iskat, is bound by a treaty marriage to the Empire for the Auditor of the Resolution, the institution through which the Empire connects to the rest of galactic civilisation, to approve the continuance of this ongoing and very necessary relationship. Prince Kiem is the only available royal candidate who can fulfil this role. Reluctantly and under protest, he accepts this duty.
The royal wedding between Kiem and Jainan goes ahead, but it rapidly becomes apparent to Kiem that Jainan has serious hang-ups. In exploring the causes for Jainan’s diffidence, Kiem learns that Taam did not die in an accident but was deliberately murdered. Kiem, who previously had despised himself as a wastrel, has enormous social skills and starts deploying his charm and influence into uncovering what had caused this tragedy.
What becomes apparent is that the Auditor cannot approve the Resolution treaty as now both Jainan and Kiem are deemed unreliable elements in the institutional structure of the Empire. Kiem sets about trying to unravel the cause of this unwarranted assessment. During the course of his enquiries, he discovers unpleasant attitudes to the man who is his husband. He chases them down and begins the long task of winning Jainan’s approval.
Inspired, Jainan begins to absorb himself in the affairs of Prince Taam. It appears that Taam had commercial relationships with Sefalan raider-pirates whilst running Operation Kingfisher, a space-mining project operated by the imperial military of Iskat. He had been using Jainan as an unwitting receptacle for the storage of essential, personal data. This had led to the innocent Jainan being unjustifiably ostracised from his goodwill arrangement, causing his diffident and remote attitude. In turn, this had induced an anti-Empire movement on Thea.
Then someone overplays their hand. Kiem and Jainan survive a flybug accident in the remote country, forcing them to work together and confront their own demons. This incident forces Internal Security, the secret police of the Empire, to change their minds about Taam’s death.
With the bureaucracy of the Empire now won over, Kiem can proceed to investigate Operation Kingfisher. This is when the denouement begins, and it is both exciting and disconcerting. What is apparent is that Maxwell understands the nature of sneers and inferences in defining wider social and political attitudes. If anything, this is the real moral of the tale.