by Everina Maxwell
“They were working together, they were rooming together, and every time he turned around, there was Tennal—unpredictable and razor-edged, crackling like the end of a live wire. Surit worked in a universe of fixed possibilities. Tennal was a chaos event. Surit was drawn to it like a gravity well.”
Tennalhin Halkana is a reader, capable of perceiving the emotions of those around him and even their thoughts if he pushes deeper. But deep reading is incredibly illegal in Orshan, and even a rebellious runaway like Tennal has moral limits. Unfortunately for Tennal, his powerful aunt will stop at nothing to bring him back into the fold. Conscripted under questionable orders into Orshan’s military, Tennal may find himself permanently bound to an architect who is charged with controlling his reader powers and bending them to their only acceptable use: navigating the maelstrom of chaotic space.
Lieutenant Surit Yeni is the son of an infamous traitor, his own so-far exemplary military career notwithstanding. Intent on securing a pension for his one surviving parent, Surit accepts a questionable transfer to the regulators for a salvage mission. While Surit is surprised by his orders to sync with a reader, he is shocked when he finds that the reader is neither a volunteer nor under a properly sanctioned court order for abuse of their powers. Surit believes the orders he has received are illegal, but when his superior officers refuse to listen, he and Tennal strike upon an unusual plan: fake a sync bond for as long as it takes to help Tennal escape.
Ocean’s Echo is set in the same universe as Winter’s Orbit, but otherwise stands alone with little crossover. Orshan, like Iskat, is part of the Resolution but wary of its influence. Neuromodified readers and architects are forbidden by the Resolution to leave Orshan space, and Orshan has done everything in its power to avoid drawing attention to their military use of these assets. In terms of genre, it’s neither entirely science fiction nor really romance, and I think this may be a sticking point for some readers as everyone will be looking for a different balance of these two elements. This installment has an even slower burn on the romance side than its predecessor, pushing the balance slightly towards science fiction.
I was initially rather confused by the world building surrounding readers and architects, and why it would be socially acceptable for architects to control people, but taboo for readers to perform even surface reading, which provides little more information than body language or tone of voice. It took the story going on a bit for it to become evident that this wasn’t a bug, but one of the central conflicts Maxwell was building the narrative around. Control is useful to governments, but readers have proven difficult to control and can access information the government would prefer to keep secret. Tennal, snarky chaos incarnate, is prime example of this difficulty, although his reader powers are honestly the least of his problems given his struggles with drugs and other self-destructive behaviour (full content warnings are available on the author’s site). As the primary POV character, it isn’t always easy being inside his head.
Tennal and Surit come to their relationship under the most fraught circumstances. Surit’s brief is to sync and control Tennal, but while his scruples prevent him from carrying out the order, he is still Tennal’s superior officer for as long as he is nominally in the military. In other circumstances, however, the power tilts in Tennal’s favour; he is the son of a powerful family, nephew of the Orshan Legislator, while Surit is the orphaned son of a traitor. It is no surprise, then, that the slow build towards deeper feelings is complex and fraught with both political and emotional landmines. And while Surit vows that he will never sync Tennal under any circumstances, events constantly conspire to push them towards this end, tempting them to seize the one tool at their disposal.
You might also like A Taste of Gold and Iron by Alexandra Rowland