Kiem is a throw-away prince to the Iskat Empire, the monarchy that dominates the other seven planets in their solar system. As the time comes to resign the treatise that holds them all together, Thea begins to chafe against the tariffs and the regulations that give Iskat control over travel to and from their solar system.
Desperate to reaffirm their hold on the galaxy and get the treatise signed before Thean hostilities devolve into outright rebellion, Kiem is rushed into a hastily arranged marriage with the Thean Ambassador. Jainan is a recent widower, still reeling from grief, who was married to Imperial Prince Taam -- Kiem's distant cousin.
Both bound by duty and anxious to prove themselves, Kiem and Jainan come together to put on a show and tamp down the rising hostilities between the two worlds.
But when the neutral third party refuses to recognize Kiem and Jainan as ambassadors and refute their marriage as a show of good faith, the two discover that Prince Taam's death might not have been an accident... and Jainan is a central suspect.
With their planets on the brink of dissolving into outright war, Jainan and Kiem must solve a murder, stop their galaxy from turning into a war zone, and learn to understand each other.
Winter's Orbit immediately drew me in with the world-building and the visuals. There wasn't a moment - between the scifi aspects and the politics - that I was confused or hesitant. From the moment I read the first page, complete suspension of disbelief. Everything Maxwell wrote was seamless, and I can't praise that enough. It was like being dropped into a world already completely formed. No gaps, no questions. Each character felt real, as though they'd spent their entire lives in these societies and were products of their societies. Everything fit.
The plot was solid, but the relationships are really where this novel shines. Each character was so well-fleshed out and original that this felt like something entirely new.
Kiem is a reformed-troublemaker/playboy, who deals with self-doubt and anxiety as he tries to fit into the life expected of him. Despite that, he's charismatic and outgoing. He knows the ins and outs of his home, learned from trial and error, error, error.
Jainan, on paper, is severe and immaculately put-together. He was the backbone of General Taam, a military man, and Jainan never let anything slip past. But beneath that, he's constantly worried about not being perfect, about not doing or saying the right thing. The weight of his planet is on his shoulders, and he's floundering between his natural Thean roots and the buttoned up, military ways of the Iskat people.
He and Kiem both look at each other and see the facade, and the pull of this story is watching them break through and get to know and understand each other. Their own happiness is at risk, but it's so much larger than that as they try to solve a murder, clear their names, and bring their planets back together under Iskat rule.
They grow, and as they do, they start to recognize negative impacts of the imbalance between their societies. Conqueror and conquered together in marriage and treaty.
Kiem was my favorite part of this novel. Endlessly entertaining and well-rounded. He's a leader, a comic relief, an ex-scoundrel, both anxious and confident without any hiccups in the writing. He's in a position of power, but that never inherently solves his problem for him (which would've been easy to write into the story).
Winter's Orbit is two soft-boys falling in love despite all their barriers. The only thing I wanted more of was the pining, the reassurance. The moment when they finally come together was softer, less of a big deal than I wanted. They came together and instantly let go of all the strife and struggle and miscommunication. I wanted to see that carried over into their relationship and into that first moment of them acting on their feelings. The moment was a little too understated for two anxious men, so uncertain of the other's feelings.
The world was expansive... spread out over multiple locations, space stations, and ships. But it was so visual that it was clear and easy to follow. The open lines are description, and I can still picture the open shot of the story, Kiem's world.
The cultures were well-conceived and distinct. Their customs and differences were worked in as a point of tension in the story, so it all felt visceral. There was no history that was simply dumped in as a scene-setting ploy. It all impacted the characters and the plot. It was intentional world-building that really made the story so dynamic.
I really want more of the Winter's Orbit world. I want to see Kiem and Jainan on Thea. I want to know what happens politically. I even want to know what happens to some of the side characters, because even their histories were so well-formed and surprising (and played a part on the plot). Everything in his novel felt intentional, and that's very hard to do.
As far as debut novels go, this was beyond impressive.