Valerie Valdes’ debut novel Chilling Effect is an impressive and fun-filled romp across multiple planets and star systems, with Captain Eva “Not-So” Innocente and her crew at the helm of things. The novel is structured like a fast-paced role-playing video game, with each chapter framing a short and hilarious quest. This structure allows Valdes to focus on the episodic action as well as the team camaraderie, the two areas in which she easily shines the most.
Eva Innocente is our badass and immediately-likeable protagonist, captain of the ship La Sirena Negro. She ekes out a living by delivering cargo from one end of the universe to another. Onboard and in it for the long haul are Min (the sweet feline-loving ship’s pilot), Pink (a medic who doubles up as an empathetic best friend), Leroy (an ex-merc whose mental illness is dealt with sensitively), Vakar (the alien engineer whom Eva is irresistibly attracted to), and a shipment of unclaimed psychic cats who make the vehicle their home.
The novel has a distinct YA flavor—and I mean that as a compliment. The lighthearted banter and debates between the characters has a millennial edge, the fight scenes are laced with a healthy dose of tension and suspense (but always with the assurance that the main characters will make it out alive), and the themes of loss, betrayal, and finding love and companionship in unexpected places are tackled in a charming manner.
Eva’s humdrum space adventures are interrupted when she receives news that her sister Mari has been kidnapped by a nefarious organization called “The Fridge”—and that, unless Eva completes a series of top-secret dangerous missions, Mari will be put to cryo-sleep and sent to work in an asteroid mine to the end of her days. Naturally, Eva begins to lie to her crew about their next steps—and as Murphy’s Law dictates, if things can go wrong, they very certainly will.
In fact, the novel would make for a fun sci-fi sitcom. The team camaraderie has a Guardians of the Galaxy feel to it (complete with all the expletives), while the planet-hopping episodic action that happens in nearly every chapter was reminiscent of Doctor Who (at least for me). Perhaps the episodic action and drama would make for an excellent television or web series adaptation. It’s unabashedly nerdy and the pop culture influences are evident from the chapter names themselves (“The Empire Strikes Forth,” anyone?).
The prose, too, flows really well. A sort-of fault that I find with a lot of mainstream adult SFF is that the world-building and the thick prose can get so overbearing at times; in these cases, it can be difficult to get “into” the novel per se and become invested in the character’s motivations. True, perhaps it isn’t so much a fault of the author, but the trait of the genre itself—Tolkien did it while inaugurating the staples of epic fantasy with his page-after-page of descriptions in The Lord of the Rings, and the novel I’d read just prior to Chilling Effect—China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000)—savagely delighted in its thick and stewy prose. And that’s alright, as a lot of readers enjoy that particular thing.
But for a lot of younger readers, as well as those who enjoy something “light,” Valerie Valdes' lucid and terse prose is the perfect antidote. The first few pages of this novel—which introduce the reader to Eva, the crew, and the psychic cats—will easily draw you in with the promise of an immersive and entertaining ride. Valdes paints her world with a few deft strokes. In addition to traditional space opera tropes, interstellar travel is possible with the help of “Gates,” tattoos can be hacked, and nights and days are measured with the help of “cycles.” Nearly every planet that Eva and her crew stop at is imbued with its own personality and culture.
Another aspect of the novel that I really loved was how positive and hopepunk-y it was. Despite everything that keeps going wrong for them, the characters believe in and genuinely care about each other, highlighting how some of the best families have nothing to do with blood ties. Eva searches the stars and risks everything for her biological family, even confronts her sort-of-distant dad to get hold of a ship to reach Mari, only to realize ironically enough that the family she was questing for was beside her the whole time and ever ready to follow her anywhere. Chilling Effect presents a vision of the future that is optimistic and full of hope, where even though the tendrils of neo-colonization, capitalism, and corruption ensnare every corner of an ever-expanding universe, there is still hope and care and love in human relationships.
For example, the pilot Min’s body is connected to the spaceship, in a way that reminded me of another space opera, M John Harrison’s Light (2002), in which one of the primary characters, Seria Mau, was literally a ship, or rather a consciousness connected to a spaceship. But Light was a novel I deeply disliked on account of its misogyny, obfuscatory prose style, and problematic main characters—Seria Mau included—while Chilling Effect is feminist, inclusive, filled with wholesome moments, and wholly accessible.
Similarly, a lot of the chapter names are in Spanish. Eva herself is of Latinx heritage and bilingual, so there’s a lot of untranslated Spanish that is casually thrown in during her conversations and interior monologues. And unless the reader is a fluent Spanish user, you’re probably going to miss out on bits of cultural nuance, idioms, and in-jokes—unless you remedy that by googling the translations as you go along, of course (even though that, too, might be inadequate or time-consuming).
The author’s deliberate choice to leave the Spanish untranslated is, of course, political. Mainstream commercial SFF is often undertaken in the English language—and, for its Anglophone readership, encounters with world SFF mediated by English translations. And while translations often satisfactorily convey the details of plot and world-building, issues of cultural specificities remain. Not all cultural experiences can be adequately translated, and attempting to do so often entails a certain element of white-washing. Here, confronting the untranslated while simultaneously reading English, pushes the average reader out of their comfort zone to negotiate with non-English subjectivities and diverse experiences that cannot and should not, in a post-globalized world, be assimilated within a typically “Western” framework.
This question of subjectivity is particularly pertinent because it is Eva’s self-development that drives the novel. A problem with feminist super-hero narratives is that creating a badass protagonist often comes with a certain degree of alienation—they may be so badass and perfect and inspirational that it’s hard to relate to them. Eva’s pretty badass—she’s an efficient planner, has a no-nonsense approach to most things, kicks and lands her punches—yet she also constantly desires a sense of belonging and acceptance.
She’s also far from perfect. She messes up, often fails in her quests, lies, and keeps things from her closet friends, even with the best of intentions. And these mistakes do catch up with her; nevertheless, she does not shy away from their consequences and faces them head-on. It’s Eva’s willingness to learn and reconsider and pick up where she left off, that makes her a relatable and likeable millennial icon.
For instance, Eva is literally stalked by an amorous alien emperor who simply will not take “no” for an answer and will burn up entire planets in order to kidnap and rape her. And, although this is downright scary, Eva remains unfazed and treats him as just another nuisance. Humor is heavily used not to trivialize certain very serious issues but as a coping mechanism—a way for the characters and the writer to make sense of things. Issues of indentured servitude, religious indoctrination, and access to knowledge are casually brought up during conversation and lightly debated.
Which isn’t to say that the novel doesn’t have its faults. The light-hearted YA tone and the fast-paced action may not be everybody’s cup of tea. The inter-species romance between Eva and Vakar, which seem to be initially based on attraction alone and later blossoms to something deeper, could have been explored in more detail. The psychic cats deserved a greater role, instead of mostly functioning as comic relief. Similarly, the supporting characters could have benefited from more concretized backstories, and the worldbuilding could have been deeper.
But if you’re looking for a witty and fast-paced millennial sci-fi novel that you can finish in two sittings or less, give Chilling Effect a read. And if you have any open questions having done so, the fact that there’s a sequel coming out means we’ll get at least some of the answers.