In this iteration, Maxwell takes us back to her general universe but in an entirely different quadrant (?), with a new set of main characters, motivations, et al. It’s a gutsy move, given how invested the audience was in the world of Taam and Jainan from Winter’s Orbit.
As a result, you can clearly tell that there’s a vague formula that Maxwell is trying to reapply in this iteration. We’ve got the damaged one (in this case Tennal, the royal/connected one) and the less obviously damaged one who has demons of his own (Surit, the army conscript). There’s still this vague allusion to the Iskat Alliance and “historical
MacGuffins artifacts” of indeterminate power which are tightly regulated by the Deux Ex Machinas representatives of the Empire. The gender signifiers (wood, flint, glass) have transferred over as well. This time around, there’s more high sci-fi at play as well—Tennal is a reader, someone who can read emotions of others at will, while Surit is an architect, someone who can control the minds of others. Tennal is becoming a liability, so he’s been forcibly assigned to permanently merge into Surit (and vice versa) to keep him in check. Surit is much to honorable to undergo such a process, though, and so we are set up for political intrigue (there’s all sorts of machinations and power plays going on) against the backdrop of sci-fi-tinged fake marriage (“fake bond”).
I’m remembering fondly some of the smaller character moments in this novel, but on the whole my sense was of a world that was trying to ramp it up to 11 despite doing very well in the last iteration with only one stake. There’s just too many large dramatic arcs, such that we careen from the relationship between Tennal and Surit, the coup d’etats on his hometown, intrigue amongst the military, the consequences of the neuromodification program, historical slights, etc etc. By raising the stakes so high, we end up with the unintended consequence that nothing seems to have any gravitas—also known as the “MCU Third Arc CGI Blow Out Issue.