Adrienne Martini Reviews Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan and Chilling Effect by Valerie Valdes

Turning Darkness into Light, Marie Brennan (Tor 978-0-7653-7761-6, $27.99, 416pp, hc). August 2019. Cover by Todd Lockwood.

Marie Brennan wrapped up the five-book Memoirs of the Lady Trent series in 2017. That, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t another generation of curious, dragon-focused naturalists ready to move Lady Trent’s work forward. In Turning Darkness into Light, Brennan introduces us to Audrey Camherst, Lady Trent’s granddaughter, who is about to begin her own adventure.

The story is told through letters, news clip­pings, journal entries, and the like. Through them, we learn that Audrey is one of the lead­ing translators of the Draconean language and has been hired by the shady Lord Gleinleigh to work on some ancient tablets he has discovered. While she is thrilled to have the opportunity to work on a potentially groundbreaking project, she is dismayed by Gleinleigh’s fierce need to keep it a secret until publication. Obstacles, of course, ensue.

What works so well is Brennan’s ability to weave together all of these different voices and points of view in order to create a charm­ing post-Victorian world that is both familiar and alien. Her characters, from Audrey to her Draconean partner Kudshayn and their helper Cora, always remain distinct. The story itself has its twists, which always feel immediate despite being relayed (usually) after the fact in letters or journals. Brennan tackles some big questions, too, about how an origin story can change public perception of a culture.

Like the related series, Turning Darkness into Light is perfect for those readers who ap­preciate a light touch, thoughtful characters, and antagonists who almost but not quite topple into one-dimensional props in a melodrama.

Chilling Effect, Valerie Valdes (Harper Voy­ager 978-0-06-287723-9, $15.99, 432 pp, tp). September 2019.

Chilling Effect, Valerie Valdes’s first novel, is an assortment of some really great scenes and some meh ones that almost, but not quite, gets there in the end. There’s a lot to love, however, like the protagonist Eva Innocente, captain of the spaceship Le Sirena Negra. Eva and her crew are bopping around the galaxy taking on mostly aboveboard delivery jobs. As the book opens, they are in the midst of delivering their cargo: a couple dozen psychic cats. Of course, said delivery doesn’t go as expected and the tone of the book is firmly set to “screwball comedy.”

In the scenes where Innocente and her crew are thrown into a manic farce, whether full of cats or rich aliens or bounty hunters, Valdes’s work shines. This is where Chilling Effect is full of all of the space opera suds that a reader could want. When the story shifts from that light fun to a deadly serious series of conflicts with The Fridge, this universe’s big bad, those scenes feel like a part of another book. The stakes Valdes sets up are too heavy for the bubbly tone to carry. Add to that some action scenes that are hard to follow (and borrow heavily from Portal), and Chilling Effect does just that by the last page.

Still, Valdes comes really close to pulling it off. Again: the scenes that work are great fun and show that the writer has a knack for the craft of comedy. Given that Chilling Effect leaves too many loose ends to not be setting up a sequel, it seems like she’ll get another chance to unify the tale’s overall tone.

Adrienne Martini has been reading or writing about science fiction for decades and has had two non-fiction, non-genre books published by Simon and Schuster. She lives in Upstate New York with one husband, two kids, and one corgi. She also runs a lot.

This review and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.

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