Ocean’s Echo Successfully Mixes Swoony Romance and High Stakes Space AdventureBooks Reviews Everina Maxwell
Many science fiction stories rely heavily on their most genre-heavy aspects to stand out in a crowded literary field, be it the specifics of bizarre alien cultures, unexpected twists involving the bending of time and space, or the dangers of extended intergalactic travel. And, as a result, things like character development and relationships too often tend to get short shrift. Perhaps this is why Everina Maxwell’s “space opera”-style novels feel so satisfying to read because while they’re as meticulously developed as any traditional sci-fi classic, their world-building is firmly grounded in and developed around the characters at their centers.
From sweeping galactic treaties to the specifics of space travel, each aspect of these worlds and their cultures are funneled through the day-to-day experiences and low-stakes interactions of the stories’ characters, that all ultimately come together to build the pieces of a larger, fully lived-in world. Ocean’s Echo is, on paper, the story of two young men gifted with almost unimaginable mental abilities, but at its heart, it’s a story of two lost souls trying to find a purpose and a place to belong, that ultimately discover both those things in one another. Yes, there are space-based military operations and the threat of a sector-wide war over alien artifacts no one entirely understands. But those narrative threads always exist in service to the story’s characters, rather than the other way around.
Though the book is not a direct sequel to Maxwell’s (equally excellent) debut, Winter’s Orbit, it does exist in the same universe, which means that readers familiar with her previous work will recognize much of its larger political themes and structures at work here, from the ominous Resolution that seems to rule over multiple star systems to the mysterious objects known as Remnants, which carry some strange power within themselves. Unlike Winter’s Orbit, however, there is much less high-end politicking at work here. Where that novel was the story of two royals forced to marry in the name of politics, Ocean’s Echo is very firmly a military tale, as various factions within the army and the government battle for control of the Orshan sector.
Its story also deals with a very different familiar romance trope than its predecessor—fake dating instead of a marriage of convenience. Or, in this case, it’s really more like fake soul bonding, which takes things to an entirely different level, and that’s before the addition of the existential threat of intergalactic war is involved. As Maxwell proved with Winter’s Orbit, she has a deep understanding of what makes these longstanding tropes so appealing, showing us a pair of broken characters whose jagged edges somehow fit with one another’s, almost in spite of themselves. (Sometimes almost literally, given the whole mind powers thing.) And the deft way the story mixes tried and true romance tropes with familiar genre narrative favorites involving dangerous alien artifacts and pseudo-body horror is honestly ingenious, and makes Maxwell’s work feel like nothing else happening in this space right now.
Ocean’s Echo follows the story of Tennalhin Halkana, a neuromodified “reader” with the power to, you guessed it, read minds. Despite his relatively comfortable status as the nephew of the powerful “legislator” of their sector, Tennal ends up forcibly conscripted into the military when he uses his abilities illegally one too many times. (Readers have a complex and difficult history, and are supposedly responsible for at least one coup attempt and a sector rebellion, and are subsequently viewed with mistrust and suspicion by the general population.)
He’s told he’ll be asked to “sync”—essentially join an irreversible mind meld—with one of the military’s chosen “architects”, another neuromodified human with the ability to “write” or control the minds of others. Tennal and his new partner are destined to use their powers to help ships navigate the strange phenomenon of “chaotic space,” a constantly shifting area near the galactic link that connects the Orshan Fedstae with neighboring sectors throughout the universe. (You’ll remember this concept if you read Winter’s Orbit, it’s the same kind of gateway that Kiem and Jainan’s treaty marriage is meant to keep open.)
The dutiful Surit Yeni, the son of a legendary traitor who is doing his best to serve in a way that makes up for his family’s destroyed reputation, is handpicked to sync with Tennal and lead the search for an abandoned space station which is rumored to be somewhere in the chaotic space around the link. But when Surit discovers Tennal is an unwilling participant being forced (and medically drugged) to accept a sync he never agreed to, the by-the-books lieutenant refuses to follow orders and decides to help his would-be partner escape. The two men pretend to soul bond instead, hoping that their colleagues’ generally hazy knowledge about what a sync-ed pair looks like will help them survive long enough to get Tennal to the safety of the wider galaxy.
But between faking their sync, realizing the abandoned space station they’re chasing is the same location where Surit’s mother blew herself up, and discovering a cache of remnants that both point toward a rather gruesome origin for reader and architect powers and kickstart a coup, the pair begins to realize that they may have gotten themselves involved in something much bigger than they could have ever imagined. And their only way to survive is to trust each other—whether they want to or not.
The book’s claustrophobic range of settings—from space stations and transport ships to tiny retrieval tugs and literal close bedroom quarters—ramps up the pressure page-by-page, forcing Tennal and Surit together, even when they’d most like to be apart from one another. Tennal is essentially chaos in human form, with an outgoing personality and a tendency to self-sabotage both himself and his relationships. Surit is incredibly strait-laced, but his incorruptible moral compass and sense of justice become the gravity that holds not just their bond but the entire book together, and he and Tennal ultimately become a great team. (Both platonically and otherwise.)
Their romance is an incredibly slow burn—they share little more than a handful of kisses throughout the book—but the natural intimacy that comes from having let someone truly know you (by literally letting them inside your head) is both earned and compelling. The trust that gradually builds between the two is incredibly sexy and serves an important narrative purpose at various points in the story when they’re both literally the only way the other can find their way back to consciousness and/or mental wholeness. Emotional intimacy can be hard to write well, particularly without devolving into a whole lot of “tell not show” exposition or explanation, but the experiences these two men share together end up conveying so much more than any simple conversation would have been able to. It’s lovely and so, so satisfying, plotted in a way where even the most obvious twists feel like earned and inevitable next steps in Tennal and Surit’s story rather than things that happen simply because the plot says they must. As in so many other things, Maxwell’s novel finds a perfect balance.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.