Everina Maxwell’s 2021 Winter’s Orbit is a space opera.
Prince Kiem has a well-established character … one such that his grandmother the Emperor has never entrusted Kiem with tasks of any consequence. But circumstances have forced the Emperor’s hand. Kiem finds himself saddled with unrequested responsibility, in the form of an arranged marriage.
Kiem may be thick as two planks and irresponsibly impulsive as well, but he does have one quality that his cousin Taam lacks. Kiem is alive, whereas Taam is most sincerely dead. Since Kiem is unmarried, he is a suitable candidate to marry Taam’s bereaved spouse, Count Jainan. Therefore, regardless of Kiem’s feelings, Kiem will marry Count Jainan.
Jainan is the Thean representative, and the marriage legally represents the bond between imperial Iskat and its subject world Thea. The issue is urgent because Taam had the bad judgment to die just before the empire was to renew its contract with the Resolution, the vast administrative entity that controls the links on which all interstellar travel depends. Iskat may be the great power compared to the other worlds of its empire, but it is strictly small potatoes compared to the Resolution. The Resolution could strip Iskat of its formal right to monopolize the link on the smallest of pretexts. Failure to re-establish a marriage bond is just the sort of tiny detail on which the Resolution might focus.
Having no other choice, Kiem resolves to live up to his responsibility. In short order, he is married to a man he had never met before the marriage ceremony, doing his best to be an acceptable husband despite having only a vague idea what that might entail. Alas, not only are both Kiem and Jianan spectacularly adept at misreading each other, but there is a further complication neither man could have foreseen.
Taam was murdered. The Resolution’s Auditor knows that Taam was murdered. Unless the murder is solved, the Auditor will not accept Kiem and Jainan’s marriage as the valid bond between Empire and Thea and without that, the Auditor will not renew the treaty as it stands.
This is very alarming. It will get much worse. Taam’s murder is just the tip of the iceberg.
Who killed Taam is a mystery. It’s not much of a mystery why someone would want to kill him. Taam is as unlovable as Komarr’s Tien. He is a romantic hypotenuse whose demise is far from tragic; it is something to celebrate.
“Empire” is a grand title but it’s pretty clear that an equally valid term for Iskar and its system is “minor backwater.” I don’t know if there’s a term for space operas focusing on minor powers doing their best to co-exist with entities that could crush them without a second thought, although such a term would be useful. See also Leckie’s Provenance and Martine’s A Memory Called Empire.
Iskar’s minor status is a well-earned one, because it’s pretty clear that the empire is pretty badly run. It features a surplus of arbitrary law enforcement procedures and harbors unchecked rogue elements. Curiously for a genre that loves its autocrats, this SF novel does not seem to take the empire’s side. A choice quite unlike (for example) the sympathy shown towards the imperial system in the Barrayar stories.
(Unfortunately, the real-world evidence suggests that what the great powers do best is being total bastards to the oppressed masses.)
Kiem is not the idiot he believes himself to be, although both he and Jainan show a remarkable talent for misreading each other . This feels like a romance trope. One would therefore suspect a Happily Ever After ending is quite likely, if not inevitable, but there are many impediments between the meet cute and the probable ending. (Probable; not a spoiler, no no no.)
Winter’s Orbit is an entertaining romantic space opera, along the lines of Bujold’s later Vorkosigan books,
1: in Jainan’s case this is thanks to years of domestic abuse from Taam.