Book review: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Title: Winter’s Orbit by Everina Maxwell

Publisher: Tor

Publication date: 2 February 2021

Genre: Adult | Science fiction | Romance

Rep: bisexual mc and gay mc, lots of queer side characters

Page extent: 432 pages

Rating:

While the Iskat Empire has long dominated the system through treaties and political alliances, several planets, including Thea, have begun to chafe under Iskat’s rule. When tragedy befalls Imperial Prince Taam, his Thean widower, Jainan, is rushed into an arranged marriage with Taam’s cousin, the disreputable Kiem, in a bid to keep the rising hostilities between the two worlds under control.

But when it comes to light that Prince Taam’s death may not have been an accident, and that Jainan himself may be a suspect, the unlikely pair must overcome their misgivings and learn to trust one another as they navigate the perils of the Iskat court, try to solve a murder, and prevent an interplanetary war… all while dealing with their growing feelings for each other.

Content warnings: domestic abuse (inc on page verbal, physical, emotional and sexual abuse), torture

There are times when you know a book sounds like everything you’ve dreamed of and you worry it might never live up to your expections. That is definitely not the case with Winter’s Orbit: this book lived up to the hype in my brain so much. It was an absolute joy to behold and read, it is the direction I have been longing for this genre to go – light scifi with romance, familiar, favourite tropes and brilliant character development and queer relationships. I would die for Kiem and Jainan and I long for more stories in their world.

Winter’s Orbit is described as Red, White and Royal Blue in space and I can definitely see that comparison. It follows Kiem and Jainan after they are rushed into an arranged marriage just a month after Jainan’s previous husband, Taam, died, in order to sign a treaty keeping the Iskat Empire from war with the rest of the galaxy. But as it is revealed Taam was murdered, the treaty is at risk and Kiem and Jainan begin investigating.

I can completely see the RW&RB reference. Winter’s Orbit has that same comforting joy about reading it, the sense of feeling completely at home and in love with the book and its characters. Kiem and Jainan were just so perfectly written and I loved the way their relationship developed from the uncommunicative first few days after they’re forcibly married, to the way they risk their lives for the other. Miscommunication is so often a trope in romance, but in this book, it actually makes sense – Jainan with his dark history of the marriage with Taam is so terrified of opening up and sure Kiem wants nothing to do with him. Meanwhile Kiem is distraught that Jainan has been forced to marry him whilst grieving, and does everything he can to give Jainan as much space as possible. It takes time for Jainan to recover from Taam’s actions, and slowly begin to see Kiem as the genuine, lovable, won’t-ever-stop-talking husband that he is. The two of them together brought so much joy to me, they were just perfectly wonderful. I want the world for them.

The murder mystery was also very well done, particularly in the second half. I was absolutely racing to get through the book and find out what was going on and find out what was happening to a particular character that I couldn’t bear to see hurt.

I also loved all the worldbuilding details. It’s definitely not your usual heavy science fiction with so much complicated terminology and world building. Instead, it was expertly woven into the story in a way that kept it light. I was particularly fond of the way gender presentation was included in this world, through use of accessories to know how an individual identified. I love that including things like this is becoming more common in scifi and I really wish we could just see it adapted in the real world! The world is also so expansive, we get little glimpses into other societies across the galaxy and I really hope we get to explore more of the world in Maxwell’s future novels. I’m particularly interested in exploring Thea, Jainan’s home planet with its different clan style system, or the Resolution, the sort of controlling force of the galaxy with some very interesting technology who kind of protect the smaller empires like Iskat from war.

I find it so difficult to write reviews for books I absolutely loved. All I can say about Winter’s Orbit is just that it filled me with so much joy, I am in love with this world and these characters and this is going to be a comfort read for so many years to come!

30 Days of Pride: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Title: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publication date: 18 February 2020

Genre: Adult | Literary fiction

Page extent: 336 pages

Rating:

Goodreads blurb: Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.

A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

I find it horrendously difficult to review literary fiction because you want to live up to the intense delight and specificity of the prose and I can just never manage to do so. It can also be so difficult to talk about a book in which very little happens, that is so reflective and contemplative as Real Life. But I’ll try! I really enjoyed Real Life. Outside of my more frequent genres of reading, it is such an expressive and contemplative journey of a queer Black man questioning his existence.

Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black, Southern man from Alabama, who’s at graduate school at a very white Midwestern university studying biochemistry. After an unexpected encounter with a friend he thought was straight, Wallace is forced to confront his life, his misery, his past trauma, and his very existence in a world he feels so on the edge of.

Real Life isn’t a book with a huge ton of action or drama. Instead, we follow Wallace from the inside. It’s a highly contemplative novel, and one that evokes pain not dissimilar to being brutally punched in the chest several times. Many times throughout reading, I paused and sat there with that feeling of a hole in my chest, taught with anger and the unfairness at how Wallace is treated, and the way he is living life so devoid of happiness. We see the way a hugely traumatizing event as a child has impacted on every relationship in his life, how his parents reactions have forced him into a man who struggles to centre himself and his feelings and hurt in the world, thinking them so worthless to others. He works so hard to please others, at the expense of his own feelings. It was particularly difficult and confronting to read the passages where Wallace considers the racism and microaggressions he is faced with for being Black, both at his University and in his friendship group. To see the stark effect of these constant attacks on Wallace. To see him so without hope, without happiness, so empty. To see himself ostracised even within a group of friends, because of the silence of those supposed to care about him.

Taylor’s prose is an easy, flowing read for literary fiction (which I so often find overwrought and pretentious). But this wasn’t. It felt very tenderly crafted, each word chosen so carefully to pull the reader into Wallace’s emotional state, almost hurting to the point of numbness at times, as Wallace was. It is beautifully and evocatively written. We spend most of the novel in Wallace’s head, as this story is highly reflective as Wallace considers his place in his friendship group and in this new relationship. As a lot of literary fiction tends to be, there is no hugely satisfactory AHA moment, when the villains get what they deserve. Much like life, this story isn’t happy. As much as I longed for there to be a moment for Wallace’s friends to be taken down a peg, for them to suffer for how they’ve made Wallace suffer, part of the most painful and powerful moments of this book is in the realisation at the end that sometimes you don’t get that moment. And that this story could so easily be not a story, but someone’s life. That moment is painful, in the recognition that this is life for a lot of people, but powerful because in knowing and recognising that, we can fight within ourselves and in those around us to change.

Real Life definitely deserves the praise and acclaim it has been receiving. Very inwardly focused and reflective, it’s a very evocative book, one that will have you crying alonngisde Wallace as be contemplates his life.

Book review: Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

Title: Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Publication date: 4 June 2019

Genre: Historical (1980s) | Young adult

Page extent: 432 pages

Goodreads blurb: It’s 1989 in New York City, and for three teens, the world is changing.

Reza is an Iranian boy who has just moved to the city with his mother to live with his stepfather and stepbrother. He’s terrified that someone will guess the truth he can barely acknowledge about himself. Reza knows he’s gay, but all he knows of gay life are the media’s images of men dying of AIDS.

Judy is an aspiring fashion designer who worships her uncle Stephen, a gay man with AIDS who devotes his time to activism as a member of ACT UP. Judy has never imagined finding romance…until she falls for Reza and they start dating.

Art is Judy’s best friend, their school’s only out and proud teen. He’ll never be who his conservative parents want him to be, so he rebels by documenting the AIDS crisis through his photographs.

As Reza and Art grow closer, Reza struggles to find a way out of his deception that won’t break Judy’s heart–and destroy the most meaningful friendship he’s ever known.

***

Sometimes you find a book you know reading will change you. And as I now sit, my face aching from clenching my jaw to stop tears, my heart feeling ripped open and feeling the strength and courage that raged through this book, I am not surprised. Because Like a Love Story is one of those powerful, unflinchingly beautiful stories about friendship and family, love and fear, but above all else, the power of life. 

Set in the late 80s, during the height of the AIDS crisis, Iranian Reza, closeted gay teen, has moved to New York with his family. There he meets Art, beautiful, strong Art, who is so colourful and brave and lights up Reza’s life. But Reza is growing up in the age of AIDS, with the fear being drilled into young people so much that he cannot face who he is, the terror that he might die overwhelming him. Instead, he finds himself befriended by Judy, Art’s best friend. Judy is Reza’s first friend, and in his struggle to accept himself and fear of losing Judy, he begins to date her. In the backdrop of the story of these three friends, told across each of their POV’s, is the struggle and fight of the ACT UP movement. We met Stephen, Judy’s gay uncle, slowly deteriorating as the disease takes over, who introduces these teens to the world of activism and the ACT UP movement. We meet so many beautiful characters, their utter strength and courage singing through the pages, even if we only see them for a glance. Art, budding photographer, photographs individuals across the book, taking snapshots of people and moments of history, and through these images he takes and his descriptions on the page, we see these characters in such a startlingly colourful way. From just a few lines describing a moment in the book, it feels like we know them so much more as Art brings these characters to life in his POV. 

The raw emotion sweeps through this book. But despite the pain and the honest depiction of loss and death, there is such a powerful message of hope and love. We see this in the scenes at protests, the fire and drive of this community roaring; we see it in the extracts from Stephen’s notebook, a series of numbered life notes on topics like Madonna, High School and Love. But most of all, we see it in the very fabric of the book, in the relationships between these characters and they’re ability to overcome such intensely difficult odds to survive. 

Art is such a powerfully intense character – his impulsiveness drives him and his complete fearlessness in the face of fighting. 

Reza, sweet innocent Reza who is so terrified of a disease which might kill him, and so hates himself from being unable to face the truth. 

Judy, kind and loving Judy who just wants someone to appreciate her and love her, and latches on to the first person to do so. I do admit, I disliked her more than the others – I couldn’t really forgive her for her horrific reaction to Reza’s coming out, no matter how terrible that must feel to her, particularly given the way she seemed to throw herself at Reza from their first meeting without ever really waiting for him to even acknowledge or show interest in her. As Art notes, the assumptions of the heterosexuals… 

These three characters are so different and yet so entwined and their individual voices shine through so well. These characters are each spectacular in all these flaws, but I thought it was Stephen who really shined through the most. He was so vibrant on every page, across every POV, being such a driving force in the journey of each of the three teens – and ultimately, driving their acceptance of themselves, and teaching them how to love themselves as he loves them.

Whilst there are moments of pain, these are always accompanied with joy and laughter, love and life: because even when dying, there is life and love and that is the legacy of these characters, this book, and the huge history on our shoulders that is left behind. This book felt like a slice of history, I could feel the power of the ACT UP movement, the unequivocal power of Madonna and the strength she gave, and even the brief mentions of Princess Diana and the way she changed the world by shaking someone’s hand.

This book is beyond phenomenal for so many reasons. For the hope, the passion, and the raging desire to fight back and be unashamedly who you are. 

Paws out,
Rach + Draco