November 25, 2020


Chilling Effect 2: Prime Deceptions. By Valerie Valdes. Harper Voyager. $16.99.

     In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penance, to make up for mis-hearing her assignment to apprentice young Frederic to a “pilot” and thus making him the “slave of duty” to a pirate instead, Ruth accompanies him to sea and plunder and declares herself a “piratical maid of all work.” Whether Eva Innocente recognizes her Ruthian heritage in the space-opera series by Valerie Valdes is debatable, but the comic resemblance is certainly there as Eva and her crew, aboard La Sirena Negra, make their way from this adventure to that in this star system and that doing this almost-nefarious deed and that and staying one step ahead of the real baddies and some characters who may be real baddies or may simply be kind of misguided or generally messed up mentally. Or something.

     Fans of Chilling Effect will certainly enjoy its sequel, Prime Deceptions, although this second book is not a particularly good place to meet Eva and her crew for the first time, since it relies heavily on the first novel’s story and events and does not recap them in more than a very superficial way. On the other hand, like space opera from time immemorial – or at least from the 1930s, when the term came into use as a parallel to both “soap opera” and “horse opera” – the book does a good job of zipping its characters around from place to place and problem to problem, paying virtually no attention to characterization or motivation (beyond the usual good/evil/uncertain axis) but throwing out adventure after adventure in quick enough succession to distract readers from the gaping plot holes and general absurdity of pretty much everything that is going on.

     This is to say that the book is a lot of fun and is emphatically not to be taken seriously. Valdes herself clearly knows this: her amusement at what she is doing slips through when, for example, she has characters who are about to get a dangerous assignment take an elevator in a space station to floor number 42 – a reference to the notorious “answer to everything in the universe” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

     Yet Valdes does try to give some depth to Eva – in ways that are less effective than simply letting her flit about doing various dirty or semi-clean deeds. Much of the first book referred to terrible things for which Eva had been responsible in the past at a place called Garilia, so of course Garilia comes to be a key to what happens in this second volume. Much of the first book involved Eva’s uncertain relationship with her dastardly father, a somewhat likable rogue (a bit like the Pirate King from The Pirates of Penzance) who is not above stealing Eva’s ship for his own purposes. So of course the second book requires Eva to consider and evaluate her relationship with her straitlaced mother, whose help she finds she needs on her latest foray into somewhere-out-there. And both books have Eva’s sister, Mari – aka Agent Virgo of The Forge – as a prime mover of events that prove decidedly deleterious to Eva’s health, albeit all in a good cause. Or maybe a good cause. Or a maybe-good cause.

     Eva’s real family, as is typical in space opera, is the crew of her ship, which makes Valdes’ continued lack of interest in providing any sort of more-in-depth characterization of the crew members frustrating. Returning characters include Eva’s longtime partner-in-nefarious-deeds, cybernetic-eye-equipped Rebecca Jones (known as “Pink” because of her dreadlocks); the ship’s pilot, Min, whose body wanders around while her mind is integrated with the ship’s core; and Vakar, a shrimplike quennian alien (the book is full of aliens of all types, sizes, and levels of unbelievability) who is now firmly ensconced as Eva’s lover as well as being a “wraith,” which is to say a spy whose activities are always conducted on deep background. There is an expanded role in the second book for the ship’s engineer, Sue, who has her own dark background because of family issues, these involving the supposed capture and holding for hostage of her brother, who perhaps was not a hostage after all or who may have thrown himself in with a set of bad guys collectively known as The Fridge (not The Forge, although the organizations may have more in common than good guys and bad guys really should) for reasons known only to themselves.

     Also returning from the first book is the polyglot approach to the narration, which may confuse matters for readers who are less than comfortable with Spanish and do not want to pause in their enjoyment of the headlong narrative to keep looking up Spanish words: “In retrospect, they’d had plenty of fun, playing dominoes and Cubilete and comiendo merda while stuffing themselves with albondigas and bistec de pollo and congri.” And also returning are the psychic cats that infest (or at least occupy) La Sirena Negra for no particularly good reason except that they seem to be a neat concept – unfortunately one that Valdes pursues this time with little more attention than she gave them in the first book, when they were merely cargo with which Eva got stuck because she was not paid for them upon delivery. A psychic-cats space opera is definitely a worthwhile idea, but Prime Deceptions is not that. However, the book has a somewhat surer narrative style than its predecessor, and Eva becomes a more interesting character by virtue of not spending a lot of time keeping secrets from her crew (although using the phrase “by virtue” of anything where Eva is concerned is always a bit of a stretch). Nothing in this book can be taken the slightest bit seriously, and Prime Deceptions really exists only to take readers on a thoroughly unbelievable joy ride through a universe whose vast improbability is the very stuff of space opera. On the whole, for fans of this sort of thing, both this book and the earlier one are a great deal of fun – just as, for fans of operetta, there is little to compare with the aria in The Pirates of Penzance in which Major-General Stanley proclaims himself “the model of a modern major-general” even though he knows nothing about strategy or tactics and is not sure what a commissary is. To her credit, Eva knows a bit about all those things – but never quite enough to do more than escape her latest misadventure by the skin of her teeth. And that is just fine in this particular space opera: the distances covered are vast, but the amount learned is tiny enough to ensure mistakes that are entertaining enough to be repeated again and again. As they are here and will presumably be once more in Valdes’ next novel.

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