In our intergalactic future, chocolate wants to be free. Or at least affordable, and available to anyone, human or other, who needs a delicious pick-me-up. So who are the monsters maintaining a vice-like grip on the cultivation and production of one of the galaxy’s most prized treats? It’s us. In Amber Royer’s debut novel Free Chocolate, humankind is intent on keeping cacao locked up and under control. Fortunately for the candy-starved citizens of other worlds, she also offers up a hero: a young media star determined to bring chocolate to the alien masses.
Royer’s story is rooted in a bit of real-world (though perhaps apocryphal) history: the life of Gabriel de Clieu, a French naval officer stationed in Martinique who had the temerity to request a cutting from the single coffee tree in the possession of King Louis XIV. As the story goes, de Clieu was denied, but nevertheless scaled the garden wall and snatched his cutting. After a long and treacherous sea voyage, during which the little plant survived storms, pirates, a lack of fresh water, and a fight that tore the poor thing in half, de Clieu made it to Martinique and began the cultivation of coffee in the New World. That story—and the related strife and skullduggery that attended the growth of coffee as a global commodity—gives you a good idea of where Royer is going in Free Chocolate, which cleverly transplants the idea to a surprisingly plausible future.
In this galactic community, chocolate is Earth’s most valuable resource. Highly prized on many worlds but only grown on ours, we humans (represented by Big Coffee conglomerate HGB) become determined to maintain the monopoly on cacao at all cost. It’s partly a greed thing, but it’s also practical: Earth isn’t nearly as advanced as some of its neighbors, and controlling chocolate gives us a seat at the table. The fear of losing control is such that Earth has cut itself off from the rest of the galaxy, under the direction of thoroughly isolationist regime. Only humans are welcome on the planet, and taking viable cocoa seeds off-planet is a capital crime.
Bo Benitez (“Bo” being short for Bodacious) has chocolate in her blood, almost literally: her father died in a (suspicious) fire at a cacao plantation, and her mother is a superstar celebrity chef working with the sponsorship of HGB. Bo herself is a culinary student being groomed by the coffee giant as a spokesmodel. She’s not much interested in that path, as it turns out, and it doesn’t take much to convince her that the chocolate monopoly is as bad for Earth as it is for the galactic community. To some extent, she falls into activism, egged on by her alien boyfriend, but she quickly proves (almost) as capable of getting into trouble as of getting out of it as she attempts to free the bean.
In spite of her connections at the coffee company, nothing goes according to plan. Which is, naturally, part of the fun. And for a book that begins with a history lesson about coffee, fun is clearly the reason to read this deliciously rich chunk of space opera. Bo’s schemes put her up against deadly robot monkeys, on a chase through an alien spaceport, and onto a ship full of aliens best known for eating stowaways. The aliens, in general, are imaginative (they generally relate to Earth animals, even though the various alien species find it tacky when humans point it out): Bo’s boyfriend is a Krom, a species of manipulative traders whose eyes change colors when they lie; her best friend is a cat-like creature who makes humans shudder. An honorable reptilian cop joins the hunt for Bo and her illicit beans.
Royer’s language is a key draw. Her human characters generally hail from South America, with English serving as a core tongue, but liberally sprinkled with Spanish and bits of Portuguese. That particular flavor of bi-/tri-lingual blending isn’t uncommon in the world today, but Free Chocolate suggests a continued evolution and formalization that makes perfect sense.
Trade wars, protectionism, isolationist border policies: these are all impressively timely issues, but they don’t intrude on an overall air of lighthearted adventure. The tones clash a bit at first, with the story taking some time to settle into itself. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere—about milk chocolate as a perfect blend of bitter cacao with sweet and creamy ingredients, together transformed into something delightful—but I’ll spare you. This space opera-meets-soap opera debut is, ultimately, a rollicking adventure; a heist story in which chocolate is the greatest prize of all. Yum.