I was sent a paperback copy of this book by the publisher for reviewing purposes, but all opinions are my own.
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.
This is such a hard book to review because, simply put, it didn’t fully meet my expectations in terms of executions, although it did everything it promised to and I really liked many aspects of it. The romantic sci-fi (heavy on the romance and character-focused, light on the sci-fi) with a side of murder mystery is something that worked really nicely and fit my tastes completely. The use of romantic tropes was excellent and exactly what I expect from a work that first appeared online before becoming a published book (and I say this in the most positive way, I love fanfiction and I think more published books should make their books more similar to fanfic). Kiem and Jainan are enough polar opposites to make their dynamic interesting on its own, even with things that personally didn’t work for me. It was genuinely funny at times, though other times it felt a little forced.
Unfortunately, while all of what I stated above should have made this an instant favorite, I really didn’t love the writing. It was good enough to work but it also randomly decided to spoon-feed the reader with information that was already available if one can read between the (not-so-subtle) lines. I’m mainly referring to the flashbacks to scenes of abuse that were not only triggering (even though I went into the book knowing the trigger warnings), they were also mostly unnecessary since everything had already been laid out for us. The abuse scenes served so Kiem could understand what went on in Jainan’s previous marriage, and to top off these really unpleasant scenes, Kiem went and yelled at Jainan. It was overall a very badly delivered climax to one of the most sensitive parts of the book. I don’t want to take anything away from readers to whom this part of the plot meant a lot, but to me, as a survivor, it completely ruined my enjoyment of the rest of the book. There’s also the fact that while basing every character interaction on misunderstanding can be a great way to explore characters and relationships, it takes a lot for it to work and here it worked…until it didn’t.
Overall I think it’s pretty clear that I have strong feelings on both ends of the spectrum, which is why, paired with the high expectations I had, it makes me so sad to not be able to give this book a higher rating. I would still cautiously recommend it if scenes of abuse don’t trigger you. I also think it may work better on audio for some people, and so many of my friends loved this so I wouldn’t completely dismiss it if the premise is intriguing to you.
TWs: past domestic abuse