Book review: Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

If there’s one thing a space opera worth its galactic salt needs as much as a rip-roaring endlessly expansive narrative, it’s a larger-than-life protagonist as its core.

You know the kind – a take-no-prisoners, swashbuckling soul who dares to challenge the orthodoxies and powers that be of the day and who does what is required to see their mission threw its hopefully victorious end.

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes has just such a protagonist straight from central casting and her name is Captain Eva Innocente, a woman who does what it takes to get the job done and who has no problem taking on all comers if that’s what is required.

She is in every possible, and in the best of all ways, an overwhelmingly in-your-face delight who swears in Spanish with the alacrity of a pirate, is sufficiently self-aware and possessed of enough emotional intelligence to know who matters to her, who doesn’t and when she has done them right and wrong, and who often gets things wrong.

Desperately, goal-crushingly, crew scattered to the ends of the galaxy wrong; and yet who is able to admit that and move on in the pell-mell that next time she will get it right.

It is honestly hard to fully express what a profound pleasure it is to spend time with Eva – who returns this September in the next book of her adventures, Prime Deceptions, an excerpt of which appears at the end of Chilling Effect (yes, you can binge Eva! Well, sort of) – who is rambunctious, flawed, serious, fun, sad, in love, angry, bitter and gung-ho, sometimes all at once.

“Why was it so hard to make a living without killing strangers or screwing people over? Seven years of cargo delivery and passenger transport, of building up a reputation from nothing, and what did she have to show for it? A few regular clients, a handful of shell companies under various aliases, and a message box full of unpaid bills.

Eva forced herself to unclench her hands, placing her palms on the table. ((Mess room,)) she pinged to the whole crew. Time to deliver the bad news. Not to mention—

‘The fuck am I going to do with twenty cats?’ she muttered. (P. 11)

She is, without a doubt, one of the most well-rounded lead characters to ever appear in a space opera.

Refreshingly, even though she has a few flaws, a broken family background and a complicated love life (wait until you hear how complicated), she is as consummate and in charge as they come, a salutary lesson that you can have ridiculous amounts of fun with a character without once turning them into a bumbling idiot.

That’s the last thing that Eva is and it’s made clear all the way through Chilling Effect that while the captain may make a few, okay make that a LOT of poor decisions, they are powered by a profound desire to do the right thing by those she cares for including her sister Mari and her beloved crew of Min, Pink, Vakar and Leroy.

She is as loyal and devoted as they come, and while her father might be estranged and her mother disconnected, and Eva is the messy result of all the disfunction, she has a lot of positive qualities and the ability to make the best of a bad situation which comes in handy when she is on a quest to rescue her kidnapped sister, mild and meek Mari, who is in the hands of galactic crime gang The Fridge and whose fate depends on Eva’s ability to complete a series of Douglas Adams-esque escapades on planets full of riotously unusual species and enthrallingly unique cultures and landscapes.

Valerie Valdes (image courtesy Hachette Australia)

The stakes undoubtedly are serious and there is a lot on the line so for all of Eva’s self-referential quips and witty observations, Chilling Effect never once feels as if it’s messing a great big serving of emotional resonance.

Eva knows that if she doesn’t come through for Mari, she loses the last shred of family she has left – yes, her mother and father are sort of in the picture but the emotional connections are tenuous at best, though for wholly different reasons in each case – and she could end up losing her treasured ship La Sirena Negra (The Black Mermaid), her crew and her means of maintaining the independence she fought so hard to win for herself.

It’s deadly serious and Valdes always plays it as such which means that Eva’s missions, her impossible decisions – the poor decisions referred to earlier are the result of near-Solomonic scenarios in which there is no such thing as an easy outcome – and extravagantly chaotic adventures come with a healthy dose of humanity and poignancy.

Having said that, Chilling Effect is an absolute riot of fun, packed to the celestial rafters with a cheeky joie de vivre, an imagined universe so rich in diversity, cultural, biological and otherwise, that you gasp at the impressively clever places Valdes’ mind goes to – this diversity extends, of course, to Eva and her family, diasporic Latinos from a faraway Earth of many generations standing who cling proudly and with passion to their heritage – and a headlong thirst for life that manages to trump all the many, many attempts to snuff it out.

“A chunk of ceiling dropped out. Eva caught a glimpse of an eye peering down into the elevator, which she promptly greeted with a vibroblade. The eye’s owner retreated with a shriek. She followed that by shoving her own pistol to the hole and firing in what she hoped was the person’s direction. None of the shots seemed to hit, but there was a sound like gravboots powering on, and then a thunk against the wall of the shaft.

Then, because nothing could ever be easy, the elevator doors opened again and Eva found herself face-to-upside-down-faces with about a dozen pizkee. They smiled in unison like a squad of needle-toothed blue fairies and ran into the box, screaming profanities.” (P. 187)

Chilling Effect, while it possesses an overarching narrative framework and thread, is not afraid to narratively pivot and then pivot and pivot again as the story goes through all kinds of brilliant twists and turns.

Thus we go from a kidnap/ransom style tale to one on which a love affair blossoms to one in which family sorts out some pretty major issues to a galaxy-spanning adventure where a long dead alien race, the Proarkhe, may still have some surprises in store.

There is a LOT going on but none of it ever feels surplus to requirements not scattered and not part of a cohesive, beguiling whole.

Much of this comes to Eva, of course, whose force of personality and will is such that every single element in the story bows to and is influenced by her considerable presence, but Valdes is also superbly skilled at knitting together all kinds of seemingly disparate parts, including, rather happily, psychic cats, so that they feel as if they naturally belong together.

And in the gloriously inviting world of Chilling Effect, they do – this is space opera with a multiplicity of moving parts, people and narrative flavours that comes together in a way so dazzlingly complete that you can’t imagine a galaxy in which Eva, in all her flawed but passionately cheeky glory doesn’t exist, doesn’t get there in the end, with everyone and everything, at least temporarily and admittedly by the the skin of her teeth, wrapped around her little finger.

True, it may not stay that way for long but while it does, oh it’s wonderfully good and you will be heartily glad for every second you get to spend in Chilling Effect with one of the most refreshing space operatic tales to come along in years.

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