Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Microreview [Book]: Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

A fun, episodic pick-me-up of a space opera with a great crew of miscreants (and cats) at its centre

Cover Art by Julie Dillon
For all that we occasionally talk about reading moods, I think we often don't make enough of the fact that reading a book - or engaging in any media, really - is an exercise shaped by a particular space and time. For all that reviews attempt to offer a transmittable experience about things we've engaged with, so that our audience can figure out from our apparent tastes and reactions whether the thing will be a thing for them, there's inevitably going to be more to my experience with a book than I can hope to get across in a single review. Did I read it over a few nights in bed, or on the Kindle during my commutes, or in one big session in the reading chair over the weekend? Did I feel I had loads of time to read or was I dragging myself away from other distractions? Was it a holiday read, or a book that got taken on a family trip for extended hiding time? In the case of Chilling Effect, Valerie Valdes' "Mass Effect meets Long Way to a Small Angry Planet" (with a bit of Julie Czerneda's original Clan Chronicles trilogy thrown in), this is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend for picking up after a week of knockout cold virus, when you're feeling a bit hopeless and tired and sad and all the storms are starting to blend into each other (literal storms, not metaphorical ones). This is a Beechams three-in-one of a book, one that cuts right through the (metaphorical) sinuses and loosens the gunk in the (metaphorical) lungs and makes you want to sit upright for the first time in two days.

In Valdes' galaxy, humans live amongst a galaxy full of different alien species, one of many barely-notable races (and their notability is for "cross-species horniness" featuring a galaxy full of different alien species (to who humanity are vaguely notable for their cross-species horniness but otherwise not very notable, in the grand scheme of things) held loosely together by the Benevolent Organisation of Federated Astrostates, or "BOFA" for short. Its a galaxy where many of the less savoury and gritty tropes of space opera are alive and well: seedy port stations exist, as do various forms of organised criminal enterprise, military brainwashing, and annoying elite patriarchal mansplainers, among other things.

At the heart of the story is Eva Innocente, captain of La Sirena Negra and this novel's former-smuggler-with-a-heart-of-gold protagonist. Eva is running from various aspects of her past, including some family connections she'd rather not get drawn into, and has resigned herself to small, above-board jobs like transporting psychic cats across the galaxy with a well-meaning but mildly dysfunctional crew, when she receives word that her sister has been kidnapped by a sinister galactic crime gang called The Fridge; if she offers herself up as an asset and does some jobs for them, Eva's sister will be released, but if not, she'll be kept in cryostasis until her sister's death and then sent to the asteroid mines. Eva, being a captain of very little self-care instinct, decides to keep this information from her loyal crew and to try and handle what the Fridge throws at her alone, passing their increasingly dangerous missions off as standard contracts while also getting sucked into a broader galactic mystery about the ancient alien tech. Also, the cats stick around, though not perhaps quite to the extent that the publicity would lead you to believe (real "cats in space" afficionados might want to follow this up with Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear for some extensive meditation on feline adaptation to zero gravity space lifestyles). Still, there's definitely cats.

What I've described above provides... a start... to understanding the absurd ride that is Chilling Effect. While all of the above is being set up - that is, in the first forty pages - Valdes finds time to fit in not just the introduction to the crew and cats, but a slight to a gross Alien Emperor who decides he wants Eva for his harem and causes him to blow up everything in sight (hello, toxic masculinity, glad to have you with us tonight!), and a set-up of a romantic attachment between Eva and her engineer Vakar, a quennian who communicates emotions using smell and is described as being humanoid but with claws, scales, palps, and a cloaca. Admirers of Mass Effect's Garrus Vakarian will know where all of this is going, and there's even sparring and an offhand reference to flexibility. And, yes, some research. Anyway, once the book has got that set-up out of the way and people mostly stop shooting at Eva, its off on the various missions that make up the bulk of the plot, which begin as Eva paying off her service to the Fridge but evolve past that as the main plot advances, and the Proaarkh technology which seems to be at the heart of both the Fridge's schemes and those trying to play them comes closer to centre stage. I say closer, because there's no big space mysteries solved here (though I'm sure they're due to make an appearance in the sequel, given that ending).

Chilling Effect wears its tropes and inspirations on its sleeve, and that makes for a pretty episodic, video-game esque experience at times as we jump across the galaxy from cutscene to cutscene, encountering everything from the playout of elite dinosaur-alien love trysts to grim planets where all sentient species are fair game for hunting to cunning infiltration missions which inevitably stop being cunning after about five minutes. As someone who appreciates video games but has struggled in the past with game-ified books, I think what makes this work for me is how different the episodes are, as well as the continuity between the characters and their motivations which tie everything together even as we zip from set piece to set piece. Of course, this is only going to work if you're bought in to finding out just how many things happen in the space of four hundred pages, and not into watching one bit or another play out. Moreover, if we're talking video game protagonists, Eva is often required to react to the machinations of others around her who are actually driving the plot, rather than feeling like a driver of overarching events in and of herself. Ultimately, what makes it clear that the Proaarkh references are going to keep being a Macguffin, at least for now, is the fact that Eva and co. don't ever build any direct interest in it apart from "hey, this thing keeps coming up via all the people who are trying to ruin our lives". It didn't make Chilling Effect any less fun for me, but it does mean that those looking for something a bit meatier won't want to pick this one up with that expectation.

What is here is an adventure that does exactly what it says on the tin, and does it extremely well; those looking for madcap space adventure complete with a fun, if dysfunctional, space crew to hang out with will no doubt adore Valdes' take on the trope. It is, for non Spanish speakers like myself, best read with a browser turned to Google Translate close to hand, as while the text is completely understandable without knowing the exact meaning of the untranslated phrases, there are some Cuban turns of phrase that you're not going to want to miss.  With its commitment to fun, feelings, unashamedly weird alien romance, and a galaxy where you're never quite sure what's going to turn up next. I can't wait to read the follow-up and learn how Eva's journey unfolds. I just hope I don't have to get sick again in order to appreciate it.

The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Unapologetically weird but adorable alien romance that really works!

Penalties: -1 Episodic and low-agency "gamified" plotting may put off some readers; -1 I can't believe I'm saying this, but it could have had more cats...

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Posted by: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference: Valdes, Valerie. Chilling Effect [Harper Voyager/Orbit UK, 2019]