September 07, 2023


 Where Peace Is Lost. By Valerie Valdes. Harper Voyager. $19.99.

     Opera is long past its prime as a major form of popular entertainment. But even though it is now relegated to the more-rarefied realms of classical music (with operas generally tending to be treated as museum pieces), the prior role of opera as a kind of multimedia production intended to engage as many people as possible has carried over to genres that are aimed at wide (if targeted) audiences. Thus, Western adventures are referred to as “horse operas” and certain forms of science fiction – those that are really pseudoscientific fantasy – are called “space operas.” Indeed, what used to be known, nearly a century ago, simply as science fiction, would now mostly be deemed space opera, the scientific trappings of many of the great works of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, C.M. Kornbluth, and other giants of the genre often being applied rather loosely.

     Modern space opera often shows up in movie theaters, Star Wars being one preeminent example. But the form certainly retains a place, and at best an exciting and entertaining one, in books as well, with modern experts in space-opera creation producing books in the full knowledge that their so-called scientific settings are really just fantasy backdrops for tales of adventure and derring-do. Valerie Valdes is comparatively new to the space-opera form, having produced just one trilogy of novels to date – but her expertise comes through quite clearly in Where Peace Is Lost, her first book since the conclusion of that trilogy (which includes Chilling Effect, Prime Deceptions and Fault Tolerance).

     Space opera requires a sure-handed mixture of the exotic with the familiar, and Valdes certainly knows how to produce that. At the very start of Where Peace Is Lost, she mentions an animal called a “xoffedil,” a name that makes the gigantic beast sound like an oversized flower from a distant planet (think of “xeno” plus “daffodil”). A bit later, Valdes reveals that the distant and presumably strange planet where the book takes place has mangrove trees and palm leaves – no attempt there to change the plants’ names or imply that they are somehow alien species that only look like long-ago ones from, perhaps, long-forgotten Earth. This planet also has a moon – just one, and it behaves much like Earth’s moon (“the moon brightened the sky”), although the real-world Earth-and-single-large-moon configuration is statistically quite unlikely (but on the other hand, somewhere there must be analogous arrangements). Later in the story, one character mentions that a particular group was “disbanded two years ago.” Since a year – even if the term were to exist in a spacefaring environment – represents the amount of time needed for a specific planet to circle a specific star, the phrase is utterly meaningless; but it moves the story ahead, and that is what matters in space opera.

     Good space-opera books are driven as much by character as by adventure, and Where Peace Is Lost is a good one. The protagonist is a powerful warrior named Kelana Gardavros, who is living in exile as Kel Garda because apparently her super-potent, super-vicious enemies cannot figure out the shortened form of her name (silly plot holes like this are endemic in space opera and not really detrimental to enjoying the stories). Once a leader of a now-destroyed Zen-like Order that eschewed violence except in extremis but was very good at providing it when needed, Kel was on the losing side of a space-spanning conflict with forces known as the Pale (and never mind the pragmatic impossibility of space warfare: this is not science fiction). In hiding for five years, Kel is forced out of her quiet life when a destructive Pale machine suddenly reactivates and threatens the world that Kel now calls home. Two offworlders (with the amusingly unlikely names of Savvy and Dare – fitting-but-rather-silly names being another space-opera feature) say they can inactivate the war machine, so Kel and her local friend Lunna become their guides.

     That is the basic plot, which Valdes complicates quite nicely as the book goes on. There are bandits of uncertain provenance and motivation, additional war units that may or may not be connected with the gigantic and hugely dangerous one, planet-hopping and very venal Pale soldiers with their own axes to grind (not quite literally, although there are swords in the book), ultra-dangerous things called Dirges that hunt down and destroy former Order members and will take out entire planets if need be – and, above all, there is Kel’s old life, which increasingly intrudes into her new one and puts everyone around her in danger. Staying true to her ideals and the teachings by which she used to live risks the lives of all those around Kel, and perhaps of all the residents of the planet. But abandoning those deep-seated ideals, which Kel strove mightily to attain in the past and which define her as a person, risks not only others’ lives (and her own) but also the greater needs of multiple star systems that have come under Pale dominion.

     As in any good space opera, there are all sorts of plot twists, some of them not really surprising – such as the repeated return of the cadre of bandits, which will obviously happen because Valdes has her characters say they are sure it won’t, and the survival against all odds of some of the good characters, that being a trope of the genre. There are questions of identity here, and of loyalty, and of meaningfulness, and of motivation, and all sorts of other things – and Valdes does a good enough job of creating Kel’s background story so that readers will genuinely care about her and worry about her personal choices, not just those affecting grander matters (which, of course, are intertwined with her personal issues). The other primary characters – Lunna, Savvy and Dare – are less fully formed, and the Pale enemies are little more than types; but this too is in the grand tradition of space opera, where bad guys are bad because they are bad and good ones are good because of something specific to them and/or their upbringing and/or training.

     Above all, Where Peace Is Lost is a good read, well-paced, involving and exciting, if not in the slightest degree believable from a “reality” or even “possibility” standpoint – to repeat, this is not science fiction. Like the operas of ages past, space operas exist to pull people temporarily into a world that is just believable enough, just enough like their own, so they will commiserate with nonexistent characters and vicariously experience their ups and downs. Valdes delivers a fine example of the genre in this novel, and if it never rises above the level of genre literature, that is really irrelevant: the book does not pretend to be more than it is – and what it is works quite well as the escapism it is intended to be.

No comments:

Post a Comment