by Everina Maxwell
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: February 2, 2021
Genres: Romance, Science Fiction
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell's exciting debut.
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: View Spoiler »domestic abuse (verbal, emotional, and physical – all on page via flashbacks), medical torture (interrogation), PTSD, grief, death of a spouse (off-page, before the book happens), scifi violence and injury « Hide Spoiler
I have desperately wanted to read this book since I saw the cover and read the blurb. Arranged marriage? Political machinations? Murder? Yes, yes and yes. And wow, did this book live up to it! This is near my perfect mix of scifi and romance. The romantic relationship is center stage, but there’s also twisty political machinations and a murder mystery, all of which serve to give the couple more insight into each other. It’s tropey as heck – arranged marriage, “oh no, we have to share a bed,” sunshine/stoic dynamic, and plenty of miscommunications. Both characters are well-meaning absolute disasters who are trying their best to fumble their way through a relationship while, you know, trying to avert catastrophe.
“You are good at appearing confident in pictures. This should not strain your capabilities.”
Iskat rules an empire of seven vassal planets, and each of their treaties is sealed with a marriage between someone from the Iskat royal house and a representative of the planet. They’re small potatoes to the rest of the universe, though, and it’s time to renew the Resolution, which controls their trade link to the rest of universe – and protects them from being invaded as well. When Iskat’s representative to Thea dies suddenly, the only solution to keep appearances up and convince the Resolution representatives that they’re one big happy empire is a hasty marriage. Enter Kiem, the Iskat playboy prince, and Jainan, the Thean widower. While they both try to muddle through and make the best of it, it’s clear that something’s wrong, both in their marriage and with the treaty in general. Can these two very different men work together to unravel a conspiracy, without sacrificing their own new relationship?
“I think,” Jainan said slowly, “that it’s very possible to spend all your energy doing the right thing but still miss something obvious. I think that doesn’t make your effort meaningless.”
I’m going to restate this here outside the usual content warning because it is a major part of the book – there was past domestic abuse for one of the characters and his healing process is integral to the book’s plot. While I have a different kind of trauma, I empathized deeply with the character’s thought processes, and I didn’t find the descriptions to be egregious or sensationalized. However, if this is a pain point for you, I would definitely proceed with caution.
“Really,” Jainan said aloud, his thoughts unguarded, “I think you just verbalize everything.”
“Sorry,” Kiem said, raising his head. “Stopping! Stopping. Promise.”
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite from the two main characters. Kiem is the sunshiney, carefree one, with a general joie de vivre that lead people to view him as a brainless party boy, and his penchant for ending up in the scandal pages doesn’t help. He doesn’t view himself as very intelligent, and he fails to see his strengths – namely, all that talking to people and hobnobbing is political negotiation, but he doesn’t realize that. Jainan’s last husband, Taam, was The Perfect Prince ™: handsome, a distinguished military officer, and well-regarded by pretty much everyone. In other words, everything Kiem isn’t, and he’s horrified that poor Jainan is going to end up shackled to him after having what looked like the perfect relationship with Taam. Jainan is the stoic and self-possessed one, for good reason. He’s not very comfortable with people, and he’s sure he’s only going to be a burden to the bubbly and personable Kiem. They’re truly exact opposites, but adorably similar in that they’ve spent their lives longing for the qualities the other person displays, so they’re uniquely suited to appreciating each other. Neither want to push the other to go farther in this scam marriage than they’re comfortable with, though they’re both struggling with their uncomfortable – and surely unrequited – attraction to the other person.
“He grinned at Jainan, and for a moment Jainan was almost taken in by Kiem’s unfounded optimism. It made everything that had happened—the Auditor, Taam’s accident—seem like solvable problems, like Kiem thought he could make the world swing onto an easier path by sheer force of expecting that it would. Jainan knew this was absurd. And yet here Kiem was.”
Between the attraction and their misguided attempts to attempt to do what they think the other person wants (without, you know, actually asking them), their relationship takes a while to build. But that’s a good thing! They’re perfect strangers when they’re meet, and the wonderful part of their relationship is watching the trust build between them – that Kiem really does mean every single thing that comes out of his mouth, that Jainan isn’t indifferent but wary. The buildup is perfect, and it makes their eventual HEA ridiculously emotionally satisfying.
The side characters were great as well. Bel, Kiem’s personal secretary and friend, was hilarious, and I loved her backstory and how it played into the plot. I also loved Gairad, one of Jainan’s young relatives whose initial prejudice against him slowly turns into friendship. The world building, while not a centerpiece of the book, was still interesting and I loved the creepy Resolution representatives. This book is also very gay with zero stigma attached. The Iskat custom is to use a piece of jewelry – flint for female, wood for male, and glass or nothing for nonbinary – to denote gender, while Theans use neckscarves for the same purpose. Kiem is bi and marriages between whatever configuration of genders is viewed as valid and normal. The only quibble I had was that the English masculine titles were used for everyone regardless of gender (the Emperor is female, there’s at least one female Prince). I would’ve preferred a gender neutral title, but there’s not much choice for that in English, and the rest of the book was pretty free of made-up words or jargon.
Overall, if you can’t tell, I absolutely adored this book. While I feel like it wraps up everything perfectly, I would happily read another book with Kiem and Jainan or a spin-off with Bel. But whatever the author chooses to write next, I will definitely be picking it up!