Valerie Valdes debut novel Chilling Effect began its publishing life with #DVPit, the popular Twitter pitch content in which authors try to sell their books to prospective agents in the span of 240 characters. The author’s pitch (“The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet meets Mass Effect“) proved perfectly timed in an era of ascendant space opera—the weirder the better. Certainly it is fast-paced, hugely entertaining, and occasionally off-the-wall zany, stuffed with psychic cats, inter-species romance, outrageous space battles, more planets and aliens than you can shake a grav-boot at, and a delightfully motley crew of misfits to hang out with through all of that.
The story drops us headlong into the life of Eva Innocente, captain of the spaceship La Sirena Negra. Eva is a messy, tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed heroine (if nothing else, this is a book that will teach you some delicious Spanish curses). She has a weakness for both pastelitos de queso and her alien engineer Vakar, and she’s sometimes too impulsive for her own good. She’s haunted by a terrible incident in her past that cost many innocent people their lives, but tries to ignore her grim memories as best she can, carving out something of workaday life for herself and her crew, traveling the galaxy and keeping their ship in spare parts by delivering goods for anyone willing to throw a job their way. But it’s not always easy, given that Eva’s past left her with an unfortunate claim to infamy, a fact she’s none too happy about. (In her own words: “Being legendary is fucking garbage.”)
Eva’s life becomes infinitely more complicated when she finds out that her sister Mari has been kidnapped by a secretive and powerful organization called The Fridge (a name inspired by their penchant for holding people hostage in cryostasis), which has a deep and far-reaching interest in artefacts left behind by the Proarkhe, an ancient, highly advanced, and now mysteriously vanished alien civilization that has littered remnants of their technology across the Galaxy. In order to save her sister’s life, Eva agrees to carry out a series of dangerous and unpleasant missions for The Fridge. She also makes the fateful decision not to tell her crew the truth about their new clients, a choice comes back to bite her hard after the business arrangement turns sour and Eva learns what’s really happened to her sister—a revelation sets off a chain of events that might cost her everything.
And that’s not all of it: along the way, Eva must also deal with her duplicitous father, a hoard of bounty hunters, a crew of space pirates, and at least one insufferable mansplainer begging for a thrashing. She is also pursued by a comemierda called Glorious Apotheosis, emperor of a thousand worlds, who wants her for his harem and is unwilling to take no for an answer.
Valdes’s universe is a whole lot of fun to travel through, with all the best features of space opera on offer: grand spaceships, thrilling battles, political intrigue, and a vibrant cast of humans and aliens. But it’s the bond between Eva Innocente and her motley crew that’s most endearing: her engineer and love interest, Vakar, a quennian with pangolin-like skin, twitchy face-palp things who changes his smell to match his mood; Eva’s best friend Pink, with her perceptive cybernetic eye; Leroy, a former soldier with anger management issues after years of corporate warfare; and Min, who is hooked up to the spaceship via neural implants and considers La Sirena Negra not just home, but a part of herself.
The bonds between these characters enrich and deepen the plot, raising the stakes with every twist and turn and giving the breakneck adventuring real emotional stakes. It’s worth noting that as much as the book is driven forward by Eva’s attempts to save her sister and to deal with her father, it is her found family—her crew—that plays the pivotal role in the endgame. As Eva tries to turn the tables on The Fridge, the fast-paced story hurtles towards a dizzying finale involving the discovery of some (literally) world-altering alien technology. The final big showdown unfurls with madcap energy, as Eva and her crew are pushed to the utmost to save their own skins and the galaxy entire.
Chilling Effect is a funny, fast-moving, richly detailed space opera set in a sprawling universe of aliens and flashy tech, and Eva Innocente and her rag-tag crew make for excellent company while you’re hurtling from one planet to the next. While the ending satisfies, it will also leave you very much looking forward to another tour of the galaxy with this band of rebellious misfits. (Happily, a sequel, Prime Deceptions, is forthcoming.)