I know that you should never judge a book by its cover, but when Orbit sent me this in the post and I opened it to see tiny cats in space suits, I already knew that this was going to be a space opera that I would enjoy.
“Kidnappers. Alien emperors. Psychic cats. And she’s out of coffee.”
Valdes’ debut novel is one that teems with depth, colour and (extra-terrestrial) life. But despite the sprawling universe she depicts, the heart and core of the book is very much grounded in human (well, humanoid) emotion, centred around its protagonist Captain Eva Innocente and her crew onboard La Sirena Negra. When word is received that Eva’s sister is kidnapped by an intergalactic mob boss named The Fridge (yes, you read that right), she must go on a series of dangerous missions to get her back. But, as you might imagine in such a complex galaxy such as this, all is not as it seems and the Captain slowly uncovers more than she was blackmailed for.
Much like the novel’s protagonist finds, once you get into the thick of Chilling Effect there are so many twists and turns to follow, it is sometimes hard to keep up, but no less entertaining. From psychic cats, aliens who hunt anything without a bracelet marking it not to, to brainwashing monks, early on in the novel, Valdes introduces us to a particularly grotesque example of this “twist”in the form of an amorous space Emperor (aptly named the Glorious Apotheosis). A fish-man who won’t take no for an answer, he meets Eva and tries to get her to join his harem, only to set a bounty on her head when she says no and hunts her across the galaxy (and throughout the entire novel) popping up at inopportune moments to wreck her ship, rather like a bull in a china shop.
“Between psychic cats, and kidnapped sisters, and her own booze addled temper, she was ready to unload on someone. […] “My name is Captain Eva Innocente” she slurred. “You can call me Captain, which is safe, or you can shut up, which is safer.”
Eva Innocente is vivacious and gusty, a protagonist whose escapades and personality make for an engaging read. This book is one that effortlessly slides between hilarity and seriousness as the plot demands (and for all the humour, there are some well-realised serious, if heart-warming moments). There is much to be said for the diversity of the crew too alongside its Cuban-descended, foul-mouthed Captain, and how well Valdes makes you engage with each of Eva’s found family as well as the biological one she seeks (reminding me rather fondly of Mass Effect).
The budding, and at times incredibly awkward, alien romance between Vakar, the ship’s engineer, and Eva is adorable, and whose interactions are some of my favourite moments in the book. (It’s also beset with some hilarious scenes that had me hiding my face in my hands. I hope you like liquorice because it gets mentioned a lot…).
However, whilst there is much to enjoy about this offbeat space opera, I felt that at times, the overarching storyline (Eva’s quest to locate her sister) and the ensuing twists that happen afterwards with The Fridge and “Proarkhe technology” – which is only loosely explained – were rushed. For a book that really puts its all into its vibrant world-building, and a heart-warming and funny main character, the pacing of the book especially towards the end was the main hindrance to me enjoying it as much as I could have.
Scenes that I felt should have had more emotional impact – like the ending with what it reveals and the (slight spoilers!) time-skip explanation – were rushed, whilst other parts which seemingly had little relevance to the overarching plot dragged on. Like a rollercoaster that speeds up and ends too quickly, I only wish that Valdes had made this novel longer or at least elaborated a bit more on some of the intriguing plot points and lore that she drops into conversation between characters or details in any exposition.
Chilling Effect is a quirky, fun-fuelled, space opera that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you like sci-fi wacky and offbeat, with alien romances, a human heart pumping away at its centre, and a protagonist with more charismatic gravitational pull than a black hole, you should definitely give this a try.
Chilling Effect can be bought all good book shops + online.
*Thank you Orbit Books for posting me this copy in exchange for an honest review.