Strong content warnings, from the author: https://everinamaxwell.com/content-wa…
Might I even consider this a five star book? We’ll call it 4.5 stars for now and re-evaluate at a future point. Edited to add yeah I didn’t even get more than 250 words into this review before realizing absolutely this was a great book.
This is the book you want to pick up and read when you’re wondering what to read next. You’re not committing to a series–I can 100% guarantee you that this is a fulsome, standalone book with a proper resolution.
What’s not to like about this book? I mean, you’ve got a political intrigue plot that has some properly confusing red herrings, two main characters with characterizations that are multiple layers deep, secondary characters with interesting personal motivations, a lovely slow burn Arranged Marriage romance that really is at the core of everything that happens even if it’s not the only thing that happens (?? this review point confuses me, I’ve read books that are mostly scifi with some romance afterthought and this…is not that), intriguing world building that has just enough detail to paint a fulsome picture without being overbearing, and the aforementioned RESOLUTION that means that you haven’t committed to a 3- to 5-book series of quality that may or may not hold up depending on the author’s desire to plan out what’s going to happen and then stick to it.
I’ll say that without prior faith in the author, I felt that parts were overbearing at the outset. Having finished the novel I can say that some parts were a bit heavy handed–for example, basically until the plot gets into the third arc action, we are reminded each time that we see a character that flint means female/wood means male/glass or nothing means nonbinary or agender or nothing. While I don’t think Maxwell should have skipped telling us the flint/wood/glass or nothing part, it wasn’t really necessary to repeat the conceit. Your readers are into complicated scifi worlds, remembering this small world building detail isn’t a stretch.
Other parts–well, when they landed they landed hard. Jainan and Kiem fanfic would basically be tagged #misunderstandings because the first part of the book is n o t h i n g but that. To a somewhat irritating degree, to be honest! Like, Jainan is always certain that he’s being overbearing, and Kiem is always confused as to why Jainan is standoffish and assumes it’s because he’s grieving the loss of his partner. And honestly, Kiem makes sense. Jainan is a bit of a frustrating enigma, and even once (no real spoiler) they finally break past the first wall of Arranged Marriage, The Trope of (there is Only One Bed and Wait You Find Me Attractive/I Find You Attractive!) you’re left sort of unsatisfied by Jainan’s constant insistence of maintaining that barrier. Sure, he’s the vassal/treaty/tribute (??) for his country and lacks the insouciant charm that oozes out of Kiem’s every pore. But he’s clearly attractive and Kiem’s clearly interested and it does take a while to get him to open up (as a character).
[And, boy, when it landed…did it land. Of course Taam the Shit Prince was abusive on top of all else. It doesn’t feel like a cheap shot–I’ll say it’s 25% because the trope of the history of abuse is female coded, 75% because Maxwell does a great job of letting you sit with the after effects of the abuse without explanation. Everything that Jainan does, even after he starts to take ownership of his narrative and work to shed the “victim” moniker, is colored slightly by the five year marriage he was stuck in where he had been methodically isolated and beaten down by the man he agreed to marry and the system that was meant to welcome him.]
It would pain me not to write also about Kiem, whose personality is the best. He’s aware of his charms but utterly unaware of how valuable they are. To those whom much is given, much seems like the average draw. Maxwell does a great job of showing us how Kiem got so good at being charming, parlaying a natural inclination towards conversation (his inclination to talk to anyone (turns to desperation after three days in jail) is hilarious) with a genuine interest in other people and a learnt politician-come-royalty ability to disengage himself when he’s shared enough. Of course, it takes a Jainan (who has never managed to create the same personna and has instead defaulted to being Perfectly Zero) to show him the gift that he has and how he can use it.
AH I haven’t even gotten around to Bel and the Emperor and all the other characters. Just read this book, it’s excellent.