Review: Chilling Effect – Valerie Valdes
by Valerie Valdes
Series: Chilling Effect #1
Also in this series: Prime Deceptions
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication Date: September 17, 2019
Genres: Science Fiction
A hilarious, offbeat debut space opera that skewers everything from pop culture to video games and features an irresistible foul-mouthed captain and her motley crew, strange life forms, exciting twists, and a galaxy full of fun and adventure.
Captain Eva Innocente and the crew of La Sirena Negra cruise the galaxy delivering small cargo for even smaller profits. When her sister Mari is kidnapped by The Fridge, a shadowy syndicate that holds people hostage in cryostasis, Eva must undergo a series of unpleasant, dangerous missions to pay the ransom.
But Eva may lose her mind before she can raise the money. The ship’s hold is full of psychic cats, an amorous fish-faced emperor wants her dead after she rejects his advances, and her sweet engineer is giving her a pesky case of feelings. The worse things get, the more she lies, raising suspicions and testing her loyalty to her found family.
To free her sister, Eva will risk everything: her crew, her ship, and the life she’s built on the ashes of her past misdeeds. But when the dominoes start to fall and she finds the real threat is greater than she imagined, she must decide whether to play it cool or burn it all down.
After seeing that beautiful cover art and the tag that it was vaguely reminiscent of Firefly and had psychic cats, I made sure I was first on my library’s hold list for this book. While some of it lived up to that promise, on the whole, the book fell short.
“You get off this tired-ass rock, for one. Back to the black, wandering the galaxy instead of being stuck here.”
“I didn’t realize I was a sweet young moisture farmer with dreams of space travel.”
First off, it is pretty funny, though sometimes to the point of ridiculousness, including a particularly bizarre dinosaur soap-opera-esque scene. There’s lots of nods to other scifi canon, like Portal, Mass Effect, and even Star Wars. The wackiness contrasts with the rest of the storyline – saving her sister from the galactic mob – and the fact that Eva has a very morally grey past (exactly what is never fully described, we just know she did Bad Things) but she’s trying to reform. The missions for the Fridge bring her right back to that past. But rather than it being Eva and her family – or found-family – against the world, Eva’s stuck lying to her crew about their missions to protect them and her family is, basically, part of the problem.
“I thought you’d be taller.”
“I thought you’d be prettier,” Captain Baldessare said.
“I thought you’d be smarter,” Captain Sakai said.
“Being legendary is fucking garbage,” Eva said as she followed the squad leader out.
Despite Eva’s constant wrangling over her moral quandaries, I liked her. She does some pretty morally grey things, but she has a big heart and she means well. Yes, she’s lying to her crew, but she believes she’s protecting them from the Fridge. Yeah, she sort of got a space station blown up, but it wasn’t really her fault some alien emperor wouldn’t take no for an answer… I liked Eva’s crew, but I could’ve used more interactions with them. Eva spends so much time in the book feeling guilty over lying to her crew that we get very little real found-family moments with them, and that’s the part of space operas that I love the most. Of the crew, Vakar, her love interest, was the most well-developed, but that was mostly in regards to how she felt about him. I loved Pink, as well, and would’ve loved to have more about her. Min and Leroy felt barely-there, only good for a quick joke or more fuel to Eva’s self-flagellation.
Part of the lack of crew interaction is that it’s very episodic. Each mission for the Fridge has La Sirena Negra flying off to a new planet and encountering wacky new characters. The missions, on their own, are usually quite funny and well done, but they didn’t always tie neatly back into the overarching plot or advance character development. Each mission is bookended by Eva agonizing over putting her crew in danger and about how bad of a person she is. For the most part, it’s very action-packed… until it’s not, making the pacing uneven. There’s lots of alien creatures, which is always a plus for me, but everything’s light on description, even Eva’s love interest. I was never quite sure what Vakar looked like, besides being vaguely pangolin-like and having face palps, which make me think of him sort of like a giant cockroach (*not* sexy). Another thing that exacerbated the pacing issues was the liberal use of Spanish. My Spanish is pretty terrible, so I had to spend a non-negligible amount of time on Google Translate. As a positive, I now know a lot more swear words in Spanish, but as a negative, it did interrupt my reading experience. While I liked how immersive it was in Eva’s culture, it was disruptive for a non-Spanish speaking reader, and honestly I’m not sure how to fix that issue.
In summary, there’s lots of excellent components, but it didn’t add up to a compelling whole for me. I think it’s still a promising first novel, though, and I’ll probably pick up the next in the series to see if some of the issues are addressed.