Thursday, September 15, 2022

Microreview[Novel]: Ocean's Echo by Everina Maxwell

 Set in the same universe as Winter's Orbit, Everina Maxwell gives us another deceptively meaty (not like that) romance romp through space politics.

Cover design/art - Katie Klim and Michael Rogers

I think Everina Maxwell might like "opposites attract" dynamics. In Winter's Orbit, this was shy, dutiful diplomat and extroverted socialite prince. In Ocean's Echo, this has escalated slightly into what I would describe as "so lawful good it hurts (he feels guilty about that" and "sarcastic bastard fuck-up (self-aware, don't care)", which is, at least in my opinion, a god-tier pairing.

But! In a contrast with Winter's Orbit, where the arranged marriage plot dynamic forced the relationship aspect of the novel out into front and centre - even if it wasn't happening, it was a thing we had to focus on because it was a significant part of what was happening to both characters - Ocean's Echo actually saves that part for much later. A romantic novel where the romance is on the back-burner? Interesting indeed. Which isn't to say it's entirely absent, but up until around half way through the book, we mainly just get flickers of it on the periphery of the larger problems both characters are having to deal with, both internally and externally to their own brains.

This is primarily because a lot is going on for both of them. Tannal is the nephew of the legislator - the highest civilian power on Orshan. However, despite all her best efforts, he's living a dissolute life of partying, drugs and offering out his rare, powerful and somewhat illegal psychic gift of reading to criminals. That is, until she finds him and conscripts him into the army to be trained as a pilot and psychically linked to someone with the more common and socially acceptable brand of psychic gift. This would be Surit, whose shining record in the army so far is a testament to his determination to erase his mother's dabble into treason from people's memories, or at least enough to make captain get his other parent her pension back. Being saddled with a chaotic conscript isn't top of his to do list, but when he discovers some of the circumstances behind it, and that Tannal is being forced to sync their minds together permanently against his will, he has no choice but to take a moral stand. And that's just the start. Many hijinx ensue, including dangers military, political and space chaotic, with Tennal and Surit forced into the centre of the unfolding tensions.

Much of this is incredibly predictable even from early in the book, but at no point does it feel like that matters. Maxwell has let the narrative accept its own occasional silliness, and so the looming inevitability of some of the plot beats feels like a joke the reader is in on, rather than a problem.

It helps, on this front, that the book is really quite funny in other ways. Occasionally laugh out loud funny. It's difficult to take much of it at earnest face value when Tennal is there to undercut the tension with a quip or a spectacularly bad life decision, which he'll declare as such while doing it anyway. There's a wry humour running through a lot of the descriptions and events, but the best parts are all reserved for dialogue, and manage to inhabit the sweet spot overlapping genuinely funny and believable conversation, especially when what makes us laugh is the smooth-talking running out and a little snatch of something more mundane or more emotional sneaks out of the sides, or when Surit, the straight man to Tennal's comic, sneaks a little barb in of his own.

This dynamic they have is both incredibly tropey and incredibly fun. Yes it's introvert/extrovert, upper class/working class, opposites attract, thrown together by the winds of fate and learn that they need each other's strengths to succeed. There's trauma bonding, occasionally someone gets rescued by someone else, and plenty of times when neither of them say the thing they really ought to have said. So it's not exactly an innovative romance, but Maxwell manages to inject palpable chemistry between them, and both characters are sympathetic enough to sell it, and so it does work.

That they're both so sympathetic is more of a surprise. Tennal, fast-talking, charming, chaotic, funny, sarcastic, is less of a shock. It's a character type a lot of people like, and it's an easy leap for the reader from someone like that to see how maybe they have a softer side under the prickles that you just need to get to know them to find. But again, it's done well, and the slow unfolding of Tennal's fears and feelings about himself and his place in the world manages to be compelling without grating against the thread of his humour and bravado. He's not just a sarcastic bastard, but he's allowed to stay a sarcastic bastard once we learn more about him, which is critical to a lot of his charm. There's also a really nice balance between Tennal's interior perspective and Surit's view and the words of other characters in how they give the reader an evolving picture of Tennal's personality, with his internal monologue slowly coming to grips with things as we learn them or see them from outside of him. He gets a genuine growth arc without losing what made him fun, and that's great.

Surit, however, is the more surprising one, I believe. It's hard to write a lawful good character without straying into potentially boring. The more lawful good they are, the harder it becomes. Surit is painfully good. He's a stickler for the rules, he believes that the law will be just and fair, and he is committed to the highest standards of ethical behaviour in himself. Part of how you make that fun is by giving it a little twinkle, a glimmer of sense of humour, like there's a person underneath the procedures. But the major part of how you make that interesting is introducing someone so fixed and set in their black and white morality to a chaotic system - they have to cope without any easy answers and confront what they truly believe is worthwhile in the world. And that, as well as his growing appreciation for actually interacting with other people, is what makes Surit incredibly well-written - we get to see someone naively upstanding slowly begin to understand just how corrupt his culture is. And what he decides to do about that.

That chaotic system is also how the pair of them work well together - the constraints by which they need each other for the narrative to work don't feel artificial in the world Maxwell has created for them.

And it remains a fun world. Orshan is another planetary system in the same universe, bound together by the links in chaotic space and overseen by the Resolution, that holds Winter's Orbit. They have no connection beyond that in the text, but we can see small commonalities between them that imply a wider, joined up galaxy as we're told exists - Orshan, like Iskat before it, quietly shows us gender as performance through choices of material in personal adornment, and the same queer normative culture and approach to genetics in parenting. Both include a strong thread of real culture underlying their space future technology, in the arranged marriages of Iskat or the sports teams or personal religious shrines of Orshan. But what makes Orshan different is the neuromodifications - some people have the ability to "write" their will on unprotected minds, while others have the ability to read thoughts. While obviously necessary for the plot to progress, where this conceit really shines is in the strong thread running throughout asking about consent, coercion and the politics of what's acceptable to others - Maxwell appreciates the need to give us the cultural and interpersonal impact of the sci-fi mind-powers, and it's there that the world-building shines.

If there's any flaw with it, it's that it really is quite a silly book at times. If you're happy to read something that laughs at itself a little while being quite so silly, then it's a price worth paying, but it wouldn't be to everyone's taste, especially with the odd realisation like "it's less only one bed, more only one brain" that might come during the process of reading. Likewise, because it's willing to lean in on being precisely what it is, if you're not happy with tropey, here is not the place to look. But both are done knowingly and with joy, so I find it hard to fault either of them overmuch. Likewise, the romance aspect of the plot stays somewhat on the backburner for the first 40% of the plot, which has many good points in how the narrative and relationship dynamic is constructed in the first half, but does mean that when we escalate into romance, we go hard and we go fast (not like that).

There is also a lack of development of the mysterious body called the Resolution, who lurked like somewhat sniffy intergalactic police-diplomats on the edges of Winter's Orbit, and do exactly the same thing here. The story functions perfectly well as it is and with what it has, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to know more about the Resolution's place within the wider galaxy. We also got hints about the remnants and their origins that cry out for more exposition.

But on the whole, if the major flaw is being left wanting more, there are worse ways to end up. Ocean's Echo is a great follow up to Winter's Orbit, fitting into a very similar headspace and tone, while being a galaxy apart. If anything, I think it might be better than its predecessor.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for a genuine golden retriever person having to grapple with the ethical problems of the world

Penalties: -1 for not giving us enough time with Tennal's exasperated sister

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Ocean's Echo Everina Maxwell [Little, Brown Book Group, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea