February 02, 2021

Everina Maxwell

A marriage of celestial convenience

We talked to Winter’s Orbit author Everina Maxwell about the freedom of a "queernorm" speculative world.

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Everina Maxwell’s debut novel, Winter’s Orbit, takes the marriage of convenience trope and flings it into an intergalactic web of intrigue. Hedonistic Prince Kiem of the Iskan Empire and his new husband Jainan, the devoted ruler of one of the empire’s vassal planets, forge a tentative partnership while investigating the somewhat mysterious death of Jainan’s first husband. We talked to Maxwell about how the forbidding and wintry environment of the planet Iskat functioned as a symbol and the freedom of a "queernorm" speculative world.

Do you prefer one genre (romance or science fiction) over the other, as a reader or writer? If you had to name your fusion of romance and science fiction, what would you call it?
The genres of my heart are sci-fi and fantasy; they were what I read growing up and what I borrowed piles of from the library. But I also read fanfiction, which prizes character and relationships above all else. Published romance was a later—delightful!—discovery that hit many of the same beats, and I loved its commitment to happy endings. I call Winter’s Orbit a “queer romantic space opera,” but in fact it’s just the type of book I wanted to read: an imaginary second world, with that sense of wonder and discovering new things, but a story centered on two characters overcoming their past and finding happiness.

The birds of Iskat are mysterious—and frightening—omens that complement the planet’s frigid and frozen exterior. What inspired you to add this element?
Part of it is character-based: Iskat is strange and hostile because Jainan, a foreign diplomat, has always found it that way. But it’s also beautiful, and to Prince Kiem, this landscape is his home. A minor arc of the story shows Jainan’s feelings about the landscape and wildlife gradually changing. Also, to be honest, I found the marital argument over “what is a bear” funny, and I firmly believe SF is improved by adding jokes wherever possible.

"[M]y goal was to write the joy in healing, even when it’s been so hard, and even when there’s so far to go."

Kiem and Jainan’s experiences with the Iskat government, the media and more allow you to explore corruption and greed, from blackmailing reporters to the suppression of the vassal planets. Did you see this as commentary on the state of the world today, or was there a more fantastical inspiration for the setting and characters?
This is a tricky question to answer. Winter’s Orbit isn’t about a specific political event, and I wouldn’t class it actively as commentary. But of course speculative fiction is directly influenced by the real world, and any attempt to write galactic politics is necessarily drawn from, or in conversation with, the recent history of our own planet. After all, it’s the only model we have for systems affecting billions of people with access to technology. I tried to keep this in mind while writing.

Relationships in Winter’s Orbit range from monogamous to polyamorous, and the choosing of certain tokens in Iskat culture represent binary or non-binary gender expression. And obviously, same-sex marriage and love is displayed positively throughout the narrative. What do you hope readers will discover about the world or themselves after reading your book?
The planet of Iskat is a “queernorm” world, which just means it’s a world where the acceptance of queer identities is background radiation, not a plot point, and no more remarkable than the existence of buildings or drinking water. As a queer person myself this was just a pure joy to write. Many people, both queer and straight, have family or friend groups where they already experience this, so all this book says is, what if that was everywhere in the future? What if you never needed to worry about defending who you are? What if you could use that brain space for something else?

Winter’s Orbit doesn’t stand alone here. You can find queernorm worlds in a growing body of recent(ish) SFF. It’s thanks to the people who came before us that we’re in this place: Queer authors wrote coming-out stories and academic essays and polemics for decades so we could be here, claiming a space where queer identities can just exist. And although at the moment we have to imagine that space, imagining it gets us one step closer to realizing it.

Jainan’s journey to becoming an open, communicative partner while also dealing with grief was a wonderful, healing element of this book. How did that aspect of the book evolve for you while writing?
Jainan’s arc is very much at the core of the story. He’s had some difficult experiences in his past which now lead him to second-guess both other people’s actions and his own worth as a person. My aim with his arc was to show the slow, bumpy healing process, while avoiding “magical” transformations where everything is suddenly okay because he’s fallen in love. Jainan still has a lot to work through by the end of the book, but my goal was to write the joy in healing, even when it’s been so hard, and even when there’s so far to go.

Were there any real-life muses who served as inspiration for Kiem and Jainan? How about the delightfully no-nonsense character of Kiem’s secretary, Bel?
Kiem and Jainan feel like they just turned up in my brain one day, but in fact, like the other characters, they’re almost certainly snippets of various real people and literary influences. A large part of Bel is defined by how she does her job, since we mainly see her at work—I’ve done Bel’s job myself, so she’s fairly close to my heart!

What other intergalactic places and times—or types of planets—would you like to travel to in your fiction going forward?
I’m fascinated by far-future science fiction where it’s not totally clear how humanity spread across the stars from Earth. It provides an infinite sandbox and an almost fantasy-like air of discovery: One book deals with a solar system over here, and the next deals with a planet on the other side of the galaxy. Space is infinite! I love that.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Winter's Orbit.

What’s next for you and your writing?
I’m working on a sort-of-sequel-but-not-really, which is set outside the Iskat Empire but in the same universe. It stars two queer characters who are even bigger disasters than Kiem and Jainan and includes more about the Remnants, the quasi-magical alien artifacts that briefly turned up in Winter’s Orbit. I’m very excited for this one.


Author photo © Richard Wilson Photography.

Get the Book

Winter’s Orbit

Winter’s Orbit

By Everina Maxwell
ISBN 9781250758835

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