Even as one of the lesser royals of the Iskat Empire, Kiem knows his duty. With an important treaty on the line, a marriage alliance must be made between Iskat and Thea, one of its vassal planets. One of Kiem’s cousins, Prince Taam, was formerly married to Jainan, but upon Taam’s death, Kiem must step in and marry the Thean in order to ensure the continuation of their political alliance. Kiem might have a reputation for bad behavior, but he is reformed (mostly) and accepts the quick marraige to Jainan.
Kiem and Jainan are doing the best they can to make things work and put on a good face for the public. In order for the treaty to go through, the relationship must pass muster with the regulators. But with Jainan a recent widower and such a fast marriage, things between the men are definitely awkward. However, when it comes to light that Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and some are looking to point the finger at Jainan, the men realize that they must work together to clear his name. As they begin to look into what really happened, it reveals a complex web of politics, deceit, and cover ups. As they spend more time together, the bond between Kiem and Jainan begins to solidify into something real. But someone has secrets they don’t want revealed, and if the men get too close to discovering the truth, they may find their lives on the line.
Winter’s Orbit was an interesting story that gained speed for me as it went along. I’ll admit to finding the first part of the book to be challenging, as I found it slow, complicated, and with too many misunderstandings marring the early relationship between Kiem and Jainan. There is a lot of set up here to the story and most of it involves detailed political maneuverings that felt overly complicated and somewhat overwhelming. The bottom line is that this marriage is essential to securing a lasting peace, but it felt like there are layers and layers of nuance and side threads added in that made the set up too complex and it takes quite a while to really get things moving. The other issue is that Kiem and Jainan spend almost the first half of the book completely misunderstanding one another at every turn, which stopped me from really feeling any type of connection between them for much of the story. At first, I actually found it interesting, as these men are so different they are completely unable to understand one another — yet they don’t realize that they are misunderstanding each other. It’s like they think they are speaking the same language, but they’re not. However, this is a long book and almost 200 pages of watching them misinterpret virtually every single thing the other says or does became overwhelming. They pretty much both think that the other dislikes (or even despises) them, and so they read the wrong thing into every word and action, over and over (and over). What kept me going was the curiosity of how things would play out and the feeling that something was right there on the horizon, but getting to that point felt slower than I would have hoped.
Close the halfway point, things finally click for these guys and they realize that they have been misunderstanding each other all along. It happens a bit abruptly, as they realize that there is actually an attraction between them, and somehow that resolves all the other numerous confusions and misunderstandings that have been plaguing them. But regardless, once that dam breaks, things pick up nicely. There are some suspenseful scenes, and I particularly enjoyed a section when Jainan and Kiem are off alone together in the wilderness. The men end up making a nice team, with the more outgoing, personable Kiem being a good fit with the more reserved and focused Jainan. And I loved seeing Jainan come into his own, breaking out of the walls he had put around himself (with good reason). This story is the best when Kiem and Jainan work together and there are some nice moments and some excitement as the mystery of what happened to Taam comes together. I still feel like things get a little too bogged down in the politics, however. It often felt like there were just way too many layers here and understanding all of the players and their motivations was a lot. But I do think the story ties up with some nice energy and leaves these guys in a good place.
A couple of side notes. First, just an FYI that a version of this book appears to have been originally published on AO3 under the title Course of Honour. Second, there is a possible trigger here that is a spoiler, so I will put it behind the tag.. And finally, the blurb refers to this book as “Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue” and while I am not familiar with the first book, I read (and loved) Red, White, and Royal Blue and I am not really seeing the connection. This story doesn’t have that sense of playfulness or lightness of tone, nor the intense romantic vibe of that book. Also, while Kiem is technically royalty, it is almost irrelevant to the story other than as the reason he is chosen for this arranged marriage. So that isn’t a knock on this book, but just that if you are choosing the story because you think you are getting something like Red, White, and Royal Blue, I am not sure if you will be satisfied.
Overall, I found this an enjoyable sci fi romance. The story took a while to get off the ground for me, but I enjoyed the characters and think it comes together nicely. The political machinations overwhelmed things somewhat for me, but I think this is a nice choice for those looking for a sci fi story with likable characters and some suspenseful elements.