Published by: Macmillan-Tor/Forge
ISBN 13: 9781250758835
Published: February 2021
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Four out of Five
Lists: Favourites and Recommended
Originally published on Ao3 under the title Course of Honour, I read this in that format first. The two versions are fairly close, but the world building has been expanded upon and there are other significant changes which shows that this has had a professional editor go through it; it’s a bit more refined and tightened up. Both forms were damn good, for sure, and it’s clear why it was able to be picked up by Tor as it was already very publishable in its Ao3 format.
But I should go back to the start. Visualise an vast empire in space, with multiple planets involved, royal families, treaties and alliances through marriage. Prince Kiem, of Iskat has always had a knack of winding up in scandals whether it’s around his work-shy nature, lack of ability to study, and party/playboy history that’s been well documented in the media. He’s also incredibly friendly and manages to chat most people to the point of distraction – he seems to know everyone and remembers everything about them – all effortlessly – and so he focuses on charity work and that’s about it.
Another planet, Thea, has sent Count Jainan as a diplomatic aid and into an arranged marriage with Kiem’s cousin Taam (who is a ‘proper’ royal, unlike Kiem, who holds a significant rank in the military). Our story starts a few months after Taam is killed in an accident and when Jainan and Kiem are then forced into an arranged marriage of their own, to keep the alliance between Iskat and Thea (hopefully) unbroken.
Only, their marriage isn’t accepted by the strange and unnerving Auditors, and they’re soon running out of time before the next renewal of the Resolution, which could mean the relations between Iskat and Thea could break down entirely. Then it seems as though Taam’s death wasn’t an accident after all, incredibly important and valuable items are going missing, and interplanetary war is looking all the more likely.
So it comes down to Kiem and Jainan to not only sell their forced marriage into something the public love and care about, but to also figure out what happened to Taam and somehow stop an oncoming war… and how this is going to be managed by an ex-playboy and an incredibly quiet academic who also happens to have spent the last several years being emotionally, psychologically and physically abused by Taam is anyone’s guess. We have a slow-burn relationship as they realise that the other doesn’t find them repulsive (their initial co-assumptions) and their feelings for each other are actually reciprocated; Kiem feels he’d never be smart enough for Jainan, and Jainan feels he’d never be interesting enough for Kiem.
The cast of background characters are nuanced and believable, with there being just enough to give the feeling of a sprawling royal family (as the majority of the book is set on Iskat) with all the aids and so forth, to also not being so many that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who. Bel would easily have to be one of my favourite characters.
The plot and pace of the book is probably one of its stronger elements, with events happening naturally but drastically changing the dynamics and propelling the plot forward, allowing the characters to work things out for themselves without it seeming forced or heavy-handed.
I also liked the references to, for example, a bear – but that it doesn’t have fur and instead has six legs and seems to be reptilian? Little mentions like that were amusing and gave it the certain feeling of other-worldly, and maybe that either they’ve seen some pretty drastic evolution, or perhaps some cross-communicated exports of wildlife from the old world, or perhaps even some weird genetic splicing. Who knows? I loved it.
The tagline is “Ancillary Justice meets Red, White & Royal Blue in Everina Maxwell’s exciting debut” and I have to admit, I don’t quite see the Ancillary Justice link, especially as this is space-opera rather than science fiction, and I feel giving it that link may attract the type of reader who won’t be gripped by this book. RW&RB I can see, sure, if in how the characters interact and awkwardly try to work things through together – their age and something else about them feels a bit samey, and it’s a dynamic that I love.
I will also admit I don’t quite understand the whole ‘remnants’ thing, and feel that could have been explained clearer. As well as the Auditors in general. The relevance of either didn’t seem to make much sense to me, or feel as realistic as other points in how it fitted into the universe. Neither point took much away from the story though; it was still enjoyable regardless.
Also, trigger warning for the abuse that Jainan suffers, though in my non-existent experience with the matter I do feel that it’s handled well, without being gratuitous and almost so hidden that it takes Kiem almost 70% of the book to twig that something of that nature even happened.
The good is that people get to choose their own gender in this world, which is refreshing and no one cares. There’s no homophobia, and no mention of anything radical about the arrange marriages being m/m in both cases.
Overall I enjoyed it just as much as I did the original version, and I’m really looking forward to getting a pretty copy in January’s Illumicrate subscription box (if it is revealed that it is indeed the book we think it is).