Book review: Prime Deception by Valerie Valdes

(image courtesy Hachette Books Australia)

Do space operas always have to be so deadly serious?

Sure, the protagonist’s life, and that of their gallant, family-sized crew are often in the balance, the galaxy is teetering on the edge of oblivion and bad guys and gals seem to be creeping out from under asteroid and half decently-sized nebula.

But is it still possible to have a good old laugh along the way?

When you’re Valerie Valdes, you have a new book out called Prime Deceptions and you’re writing about Captain Eva Innocente and the intrepid crew of La Sirena Negra – co-captain Pink, ship’s pilot Min, engineer Susan and Quennian law enforcement Wraith named Vakar (who’s in a relationship with Eva), you most certainly can.

Primarily because while a solar system’s worth of very, very serious stuff is happening to Eva and the crew, and they respond capably and accordingly because they are professionals and know their collective stuff, they are simultaneously able to stand back, realise the absurdity of much of it and crack jokes and make witty, incisive observations accordingly.

“Eva darted from behind her cover towards another rocky pillar, lurching forward and cagando en la mierda every time she gravboot stuck. The methane-fueled fire was up to her chest now, making visibility even more difficult. She shifted the package so most of its weight was on her right side; the damn thing was heavy, and bulky, and she hadn’t expected to be carrying it while running and being shot.” (P. 3)

It’s as if Douglas Adams and Peter F Hamilton met at a writers’ conference and had an hilariously Spanish profanities-punctuated literary baby, one that is filled to the brim with double-dealing mercenaries, nefarious planetary rulers, shapeshifting robots of ancient origin and cute adorable robotic toys that might be the vanguard of a psychic invasion, but which also understands that the world, the galaxy and indeed the universe is a strange and weird place and thus deserving of a sideways glance and come humour-laced criticism.

It is, by any measure, inspired stuff.

Helping things along too is the fact that Eva Innocente is a Latinx woman who loves her abuelo and abuela, who swears in Spanish like a space pirate (not that she is, thank you; she skirts the law, yes, but in a roguishly likeable kind of way) and is not averse to dramatic, shouty videocalls to her mother who works for the Benevolent Organization of Federated Astrostates (BOFA; because there must always be an acronym or what kind of organisation is it, really?) in a hush-hush Secret Squirrel capacity.

Eva is one of the gloriously complex protagonists that you can’t help but love almost immediately.

After meeting her in Chilling Effect, we know that Eva is feisty, passionate, prone to acting impulsively but trying hard not to be because it doesn’t always end well (hence her compulsion-blunting co-captaincy with Pink aka Dr Rebecca Jones), in love with Vakar (hooray for unconditional, supportive, turn your spaceship around to rescue your beloved LOVE) and happy for the first time in a long time with a crew who is doing a better job of being a family than her own flesh and blood.

Valerie Valdes (image courtesy Hachette Books Australia)

She is, in short, everything you’d want in a leading character and damn funny and unwilling to take any crap into the bargain.

This means that even in the fiercest of battles and the most terrifying of situations that Eva is ready with a quip, a witty aside or a startling on-point observation laced with humour to a thigh-slappingly funny degree.

Pulling off this kind of writing, one that values narrative substance, character emotiveness and hilarity in equal measure is not easy by any measure but Valdes manages it with giddy, joyously involving aplomb, investing Prime Deceptions with as much sparkling, zesty humour as spine-tingling action and affecting heart and soul.

Eva and hew crew are all too aware that much of what happens to them at the hands of weird-ass aliens, mercenary criminal syndicates and mysterious possible forces for good such as the Forge (where her sister, with whom she has a complex relationship, works in classified secrecy) is strange as hell or just plain ridiculous but they take it seriously because, all jokes aside, their lives and that of many other people are on the line, and while quips and retorts are frankly damn well hilarious, they cannot an emotionally affecting plot make.

So it is that in Prime Deceptions we are party to a story where The Forge contract Eva and her crew, who likes eating well and not being on the poverty line (somewhere they know all too well; they exist in a universe which is anything but altruistically benevolent), to find a missing scientist who can aid them in their ancient alien technology research and bring him back to tip the balance against the forces of evilness.

“Eva smirked at her eyebrow-raising co-captain. ‘We’re not quite there, but I think I just figured out where the queens are. Vámonos. Let’s get back to the others and see if we can’t take advantage of this hand.’ Her smirk fell away like she’d dropped all her cards, and she started walking faster.

‘What now?’ Pink asked.

‘Me cago en diez, I left Vakar alone with my mom.” (P. 278)

The only problem with a seemingly open-and-shut assignment?

The scientist in question is the brother of engineer Susan, who thinks the world of her shiny, squeaky clean brother, who might be or might not be, working with a planetary dictator to do with rather unspeakably awful, authoritarian things.

While all this is going down, and it is emotionally intense, Eva is struggling with very dark memories from her less-than-illustrious past, the kind of memories which might make people wonder if they should be following you at all and whether, hilarious though you are, they might be better off in another spaceship altogether.

It is big, epic, emotional stuff but Valdes smartly folds it into a fast-moving, thrillingly good plot that is rife with comedic moment after comedic moment without once missing a storytelling beat.

Prime Deceptions is proof that you can have your dramatic galactic cake and mercilessly but affectionately crack jokes about it too, and still have a story not only worth reading but reading quickly and with rampant enthusiasm because how can you not want to dive in and stay dived deep into to planetary shenanigans of this complexity, hilarity and emotional richness?

The thing you can’t and Prime Deceptions will richly reward you every step of the way as it takes from one side of the galaxy to the next, full to the emotionally-satisfying end with action aplenty, vivaciously-realised characters, pitch-perfect humour and a story that proves the galaxy can be in mortal danger but that doesn’t mean you can’t be sardonically observant about it too.

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