I don’t know why I waited on Winter’s Orbit, because it was everything I hoped it would be. I suspect it won’t appeal much to someone who hates either the SF/F genre or the romance genre: there’s both here, intertwined, and if you don’t find both satisfying then you probably won’t enjoy the book. If you’re in fandom, you’ll immediately feel at home, I think — it feels like fanfic, in the sense that it has a certain joyful use of tropes that fanfic specialises in. “There’s Only One Bed”, “Mutual Pining”, “Sharing A Sleeping Bag For Warmth”, “Arranged Marriage”, etc, etc. There’s a lot of warmth and joy that arises out of the relationship between Jainan and Kiem, and it’s lovely.
That said, I don’t want it to sound like this book is pure fluff, because it isn’t (much as I might enjoy pure fluff with these two characters). It’s quickly obvious that Jainan has been abused in the past, and that his life has been very tightly controlled… Obvious, that is, to everyone but his new partner, who thinks he’s grieving, tries to give him space, and generally tries to be decent. They talk at cross-purposes and it leaves Jainan deeply unmoored, not sure of what to do, how to behave, or where the thin ice is. That theme runs throughout the book, yet overall I’d call the tone hopeful. And that’s mostly because of Kiem, who is a sweetheart.
The story is so enjoyable because the romance is a little bit of a slow burn: the misunderstanding at first, and Jainan’s fear, mean that the initial easy route into “oops, they’re in love” is blocked, and instead there’s a fairly natural development of their relationship into awkward friendship and more. That said, the “slow burn” has nothing on the 70-parter fics you can find in fandom!
I got really invested in this, which is why I decided to bump the rating up to 5 — I rate based on my enjoyment of books, after all, not some objective measure. At one point I kept having to put the book down to make stressed noises at my wife because eeep! Eeeep! It all came together really well for me.
I get the comparisons to Red, White and Royal Blue, and also the comparisons to Ann Leckie. For once, I can’t disagree. It’s not quite the same kind of book as Ancillary Justice et al, but there are some things that feel similar.