Is there a romance plot more audacious than the fake-dating scenario? Netflix's “Bridgerton” recently plumbed the depths of a false courtship in scandal-obsessed Regency-era London to great acclaim. But at its heart, the trope concerns two near-strangers forced into the intimacies of a relationship, and the surprising partnership that inevitably springs from an initially unemotional arrangement.
In her debut novel “Winter's Orbit,” Everina Maxwell rockets this surefire premise into space, uniting Prince Kiem (lesser royal of the Iskat Empire) in a political marriage with Count Jainan (from vassal planet Thea) following the unexpected and tragic death of Jainan's husband, Prince Taam. As if himbo Kiem didn't already feel like a poor match for austere widower Jainan, he fears encroaching on Jainan's grief so soon. Alas, neither has much of a say, burdened with the imperial order to make it work.
Typical fake-relationship stakes range from relatively low (fooling immediate family) to higher but still singular (Daphne Bridgerton's virginal reputation). But it's not just Kiem's pride, or Jainan's diplomatic immunity, riding on them convincing everyone they're in love: Their marriage reaffirms the treaty between Iskat and Thea, with the unfortunate timing of the human-yet-alien Auditors also overseeing how stable Iskat's dominion is in relation to the larger Resolution with other Galactic powers. The fate of an entire interstellar empire hinges on their ability to convince the dispassionate Auditors, plus Kiem's bloodthirsty detractors in the press, that this isn't a colossal mismatch.
Yet despite these looming consequences, the most pressing question in “Winter's Orbit” is, when will Kiem and Jainan realize that they're both hopelessly pining after one another?
Having first existed as “The Course of Honour,” an original work uploaded to the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own (AO3), the revised “Winter's Orbit” remains true to its fannish origins, skewing more toward one genre than the other. As a romance, “Winter's Orbit” delivers on its promises like a well-inked marriage contract: There will be misinterpreted touches and only one bed; they will get stranded on an icy mountain. As a space opera, its specifics are blurred, acting more as backdrop than real plot driver.
These young nobles have that compelling dynamic best summed up as "the grumpy one" (Jainan) and "the sunshine one" (Kiem): The prince is personable and engaging where his outsider husband is stiff and awkward. This is fertile ground for the tropiest of misunderstandings, compounded by our heroes' own self-loathing baggage. Kiem's assumption that Jainan's hesitation to touch him must be rooted in repulsion is catnip to this romance reader, while Jainan's bafflement every time Kiem reveals hidden layers and actual care makes one want to coo, "Who hurt you?" (In this case, it's not just a saying; consider this a content warning for domestic abuse.)
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The space opera worldbuilding is broad but shallow. Of particular interest is Iskat's gender spectrum, indicated by flint (female), wood (male) and glass (nonbinary), which allows people to perform their gender through hairpieces, bangles, or pins. It also challenges Kiem with moments of dissonance, when he misreads a Thean person's gender based on his own biases. On the Thean side is a clan system with intricate relationships and loyalties — many of which Jainan had to give up when he married Taam. Yet despite how Jainan suffers from not honoring his own customs, Maxwell doesn't delve into what exactly those traditions are, nor into Jainan's tense position straddling two cultures. And the Auditors' deliberate distancing from other humans is fascinating, yet never truly explored.
While the novel's background is densely populated by supporting characters, they mostly feel underdeveloped. Kiem's symbiotic, antagonistic relationship with the press has less to do with his history of high-society faux pas than it does in reporters' apparently single-minded greed to get the best scoop. An Iskat professor and her Thean student reveal personal ties to Jainan, yet their impact on him is mostly as messengers for political intrigue. An exception is Bel, Kiem's dreamily competent aide, whose mysterious past could launch its own sequel and provide much-needed expansion to Maxwell's universe.
The marriage between love story and space opera is strongest in the smaller, human moments: The cringingly strained contract signing that Kiem and Jainan both botch. The absurd layers of bureaucracy through which they must wade to negotiate something as small but vital as Jainan accessing his private messages — revealing that Jainan's first marriage to Taam may not have been so storybook-idyllic. The utilization of a heavily-foreshadowed technology for a poignant sequence of reverse-gaslighting.
The intergalactic conspiracy to which “Winter's Orbit” builds is less gripping than Kiem and Jainan's rise to power couple. But when these sensitive boys figure out what actually makes their match work, that's when sparks fly.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, Den of Geek, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.
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