Friday 15 March 2024

Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes | review by Stephen Theaker

This review originally appeared in Interzone #284 (November–December 2019).

Eye-catching cover art by Julie Dillon gives a good idea of what’s inside: goofball space opera with a more serious protagonist. She is Captain Eva-Benita Caridad Alvarez y Coipel de Innocente, who hasn’t spoken to her family in years, since the awful incident at Garilia. She owns a slightly old-fashioned spaceship, La Sirena Negra, a keep-your-mouth-shut present from her estranged spaceship-dealer father, and we meet her just as she and her crew run into even more trouble than usual.

In the opening chapter, they are trying to recapture a shipment of super-intelligent mind-control cats that are loose on the ship. More misfortune comes when the sale of those cats falls through, and then Eva gets a message to say her sister, Mari, has been kidnapped by The Fridge, an intergalactic criminal organisation. (Intergalactic travel is made possible by Gates, communications via the Quantumnet.) Eva has to follow their instructions without telling her crew a word about what’s going on.

The crew are an interesting and likeable bunch. Leroy had been a mere meat puppet in the army, but knows how to manage a supply chain. His programmable (and hackable) tattoos are quite cool. Pink is a sniper and doctor who can scan for injuries with her cybernetic eye. Min’s neural implants let her plug into the ship, and sometimes she forgets that she has a flesh and blood body too.

Ship’s engineer (and romantic interest) Vakar Tremonis san Jaigodaris is a quennian. His species uses scents to communicate, which seems like a cute idea until the book mentions, fatally, one smelling like cigarette smoke with a hint of fart. From then on it feels like he is constantly flatulent. And I can’t imagine it would be pleasant to smell liquorice, as happens here, whenever a co-worker finds you attractive.

The book is structured episodically, very much like a television programme. This seems at first like a good thing, giving it the shape of an old-fashioned fix-up. Episodes take them to places like the Righteous Sanctuary of the Eternally Echoing Warble, on the otherwise abandoned planet Dalnulara, and Futis, where anyone not carrying documentary proof of sentiency may be hunted for food. They are generally pretty good fun.

But this structure means that characters and plot elements come and go quickly, and the clear motivations of the book’s beginning are pretty much gone by its conclusion. I’d never argue that a modern novel must cleave to the three dramatic unities, or that Chekhov’s gun should be treated as an unbreakable rule, but when a book adds psychic cats to a spaceship’s crew it’s disappointing when they don’t play a further role in the plot.

And there are too many of these episodes. At about a hundred and eighteen thousand words the book is far, far too long for something so cheerfully insubstantial and derivative. There are strong echoes of things like Star Wars and Firefly, and it felt like Mass Effect fanfiction even before reading that the author is a Bioware fan. A later episode is a straightforward, shameless steal from Portal, with the captain getting her hands on portal guns.

Another chapter is called “Woman in the Fridge”, referencing the trope of female characters being killed off in comics to motivate the heroes, as exemplified by Green Lantern finding his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into a fridge. It’s an odd thing to nod to when a woman in a fridge is precisely the motivation in this book.

Still, the novel has many thrilling moments, such as when the captain tries to escape a space station – she has a set of magnetic boots that are frequently used in inventive and entertaining ways – and she has some good lines: when an infatuated emperor promises to pursue her to the ends of universe, Captain Innocente responds that it’s a good thing the universe is expanding.

The dictionaries and translation function on my Kindle gave me a sense of the colourful Spanish she frequently uses: “comemierde” is apparently a vulgar term for a “persona que es considerada despreciable”. American readers are likely to be more familiar with Spanish, while UK readers may find it frustrating, especially in print and when it’s crucial to the plot.

The lengthy acknowledgments might have been better left to the end, partly because it always feels odd to have the author take a victory lap before you’ve read the book, but also because it mentions NaNoWriMo, and that leads the reader to expect a certain kind of novel: lively, energetic, in the moment and good-natured, but not terribly complex or carefully plotted, and that’s pretty much what we get. Stephen Theaker ***

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