Thursday, January 11, 2024

Microreview: Where Peace is Lost by Valerie Valdes

Much of the charms and skill of the author's previous series, while focusing on a story that is more explicitly science fantasy.

Kel has a problem. Kel has a number of problems, and one that she only learns that she has. Trying to make a living on a off-the-main-lines planet as a refugee is rather hard. Trying to harvest a fungus from what is essentially a Kaiju is no way to make a living, but the darkness in Kel's past has driven her to this remote location. But when an old automated war machine threatens the communities of the planet she is on, Kel is dragged by her conscience and events to help face off against the threat.

For, you see, Kel is no ordinary refugee by any means whatsoever. And whether she will or no, her old skills and nature are going to be needed if innocents are to be protected.

This is Valerie Valdes' Where Peace is Lost.

There is much to be thought about in what is on the surface a relatively frothy and fun book. Given that Valdes' previous three novels are frothy, fun, and also holding a darkside, I was wondering when the latter element was going to emerge, if Valdes' would carry that style and aesthetic into her new world, verse, book and chararater of Kel. And in fact, she does. Just like Captain Eva Innocente of the La Sirena Negra (Chilling Effect), Kel is a character whose position and nature you think you know from the get go, but as the novel (series in the case of Eva) goes on, it turns out her life, her ethos and her story is far more complicated than you think, In addition, there is a layer of darkness to the past for Eva, and here, now for Kel, that belie the relatively frothy surface of the start of the story. We met Kel in a precarious situation, trying to make a living, in an action sequence that is as comedic as it is harrowing. (Compare with Eva, whom we first meet dealing with her cargo of psychic space cats). But things rapidly change, and we get to see a darker, more nuanced, more complicated story, both in terms of plot as well as character. 

But I want to focus in this review on the aesthetic and the subgenre of this novel. I didn't realize or see it coming in, it was a delightful surprise, but I realize that it is not a subgenre that everyone thinks is "peanut butter and chocolate" together. So I want to talk about the novel in a little detail in terms of it being firmly in the subgenre of science fantasy.

The science fantasy property that Kel, and Where Peace is Lost might evoke in you is Star Wars, and it is clear that Valdes has borrowed some of the iconography and ideas of Star Wars to create her character and her universe. Kel, it turns out is one of the few remaining of her kind, a knight in an interstellar order dedicated to peace and bringing stability and mercy to those in need. She can conjure a magical sword at will, but she is extremely opposed to revealing who she is, or engaging in violence unless provoked to do so and having no other choice.  

Yes, Kel has some resemblance to a Jedi, somewhere between Obi-Wan and Yoda, for the latter even living in a swamp. The notes to Star Wars continue, with there being an evil Empire out there, and the planet that Kel is on not being quite within their power, but close enough that they are a threat. Add in the fact that Kel has a price on her head for being a member of the Order which opposed the Empire just amps up her desire to try and keep people safe by keeping a low profile. The Empire will not send forces to devastate towns and planets if they don't know she is there to send those forces.

And this is where she as a character differs very much from Star Wars. Yoda has just been quietly living on Dagobah and if Obi-Wan had not sent Luke there, he would have died without a thought or note to anyone (I realize now that the Empire, Vader or Palpatine, had no idea that Yoda was there or that he was alive at all, and seemed content to keep it that way). Obi-Wan, of course, was hiding but also keeping an eye out on Luke. Kel might live near a swamp, but she doesn't have someone to watch over in the same way, but she definitely is hiding in a more active way than Yoda is. She is mindful about hiding from the Empire. It's an active sort of hiding.

And that gets a bit to Kel's personality here as a reluctant paladin. She holds back for much of the novel because she fears what will happen if word of her ability, her capacity, her nature, gets out and about. This hesitancy to reveal who and what she is, to use her powers and abilities, is an ongoing tension through much of the book. She is a very reluctant warrior who fears what happens when, indeed, peace is lost.  

But still, Kel does get grief for holding her back for so long. One of the characters does give her a lashing for holding back who and what she can do for so long. Not just for the planet, this "rim world" that she is on, but the rest of the galaxy itself has been held back. In a way, it feels like some criticisms of Obi-Wan for just sitting on Tatooine doing nothing for two decades while Luke grew up, letting the Empire work its evil unopposed even in a minor capacity. But given the personality of Kel, the criticisms are both justified and yet, we see from Kel's point of view, why she decided to run and hide. 

However, when Kel "comes clean" as to who and what she is, we do get, in tandem, see, just how dangerous and potent a force she is and can be (there is a wonderful set piece where forces that have captured her don't quite realize just what a knight like her can do, even ostensibly disarmed, and learn to their sorrow the depths of their mistake). But at the same time, that sequence and others show just how much of an impact Kel revealing her existence really has, the danger that a knight wandering around, known, would have on her community. She is herself a threat, a danger, a weapon of mass destruction. And one that her enemies are willing to kill many in order to get at her. 

I think this really plays into the science fantasy vibe, and not just Star Wars. Consider properties like Blackstar and Thundarr, where a figure wielding a magic sword, with companions, can really cut a swath through a landscape and people react, often violently, to their presence. The fact that this is a spacecraft and high tech adds the science fiction element to the idea of a very dangerous paladin with serious skills and considered a public enemy by the interstellar empire, and you get that "peanut butter and chocolate" of science fiction and fantasy mixed together. 

And to focus on that paladin element for a moment, paladins get a lot of grief in fantasy. They are too often depicted as humorless prigs, or uptight, or my favorite "lawful stupid".  Kel is none of these. She holds herself down and holds herself back to protect others, to maintain the peace, because when she is unleashed, she is not to be trifled with and there is devastation in her wake. It's the kind of paladin, here a space fantasy paladin, I really can get behind as opposed to the stereotypes one often sees. 

Although The Last Jedi gets a lot of grief from certain quarters, and the movie itself gets walked back, the depiction of Luke in that film resonates with me in the character of Kel--Kel holds herself back, stays out of the way of things, doesn't want to get involved, but when she is moved to act, she is implacable, a force that is not invulnerable and unstoppable, but a force that must always be respected. 

But in all that, there are the deeper layers. What happened to the rest of the knights, how Kel feels about that, and the consequences of that on her, and on others is the deeper and darker layer underneath the Space Fantasy Paladin with Issues. It creates a well rounded character that we come to understand why and how she came to be where she is, and how she learns, herself, to do better. And the story is complete in one volume, but with a sequel hook that could provide Kel and her team more adventures. I'd read more. Like her previous series, Valdes is good at having her characters build a found family and I could have doubled the length of this review discussing the other characters that Kel bonds with. 

Valdes' books are like a strong brewed coffee drink with a big layer of sweet whipped cream and froth. That first sip is sweet, but then a subsequent sip reveals the rich texture and darkness beneath that surface. 



  • Space Fantasy with a Paladin! 
  • Excellent and fun narrative reveals deeper character depths
  • Page turning, engaging writing.

Reference: Valdes, Valerie, Where Peace is Lost, [Harper Voyager, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I'm just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.