Book review: Fault Tolerance by Valerie Valdes

(courtesy Harper Collins Booksellers Australia)

There’s always been a lot to like about the gloriously flawed but found family-prioritising protagonists at the heart of the Chilling Effect series of playfully intense novels by Valerie Valdes but chief among them must surely be the fact the fact that here are saviours-of-the-day that do not have their collective sh*t together.

Not even a little bit.

They are competent as hell at what they do, people, and yes, even psychic cats, who know their way around piloting a spaceship or operating a mech or even successfully employing an ancient counter super-weapon that may just be the key to saving the universe, and they might be wholly adept at thwarting bad guys and dubious actual family members of lead protagonist, Latinx or latine Captain Eva Innocente, but they are not perfect human being or goodhearted aliens.

And you know what? It makes them a joy to read about it!

Unlike Marvel et al, these are antiheroes who very much have feet of clay and who don’t get it right when it comes to decision-making, and who, especially in the case of Eva and Valdes’ third and likely final instalment in her current series, Fault Tolerance, make well-intentioned decisions with some scarily final consequences.

We’re well used to our heroes attacking their goal of saving x, y or z with gravitas and a polished sheen of perfection but Eva and her loyally talented crew don’t have that and it makes them all the more compelling to read about it, adding a relatably flawed layer to their epic sci-fi adventuring.

No matter what happened, they would assuredly get the mech, but whether she’d be able to steal a sniper out of his moving nest surrounded by vultures was much more debatable.

They aren’t exactly antiheroes with their heroic status very much confirmed; they do save the galaxy more than once and do with aplomb and a winningly mischievously enjoyable take on extreme prejudice.

Do not, in other words, confuse their rambunctiously dysfunctional and fun approach to achieving their goals are some sort of sign they aren’t capable of doing what they need to do because they are well and truly up to the task.

Valdes writes them as eminently qualified and fearsomely equipped characters who are the crew of La Sirena Negra, a beat-up cargo ship that has seen finer days physically but remains the vehicle of choice for blockbuster-y sci-fi exploits, and while they are imbued with quick wit and fearsome temper, they are never the butt of any kind of comedic joke.

So, an emphatic tick when it comes to characters who can absolutely get the job done every bit as effectively as any characters in any sprawlingly big and massively involving space opera.

Vibrantly humourous and gloriously irreverent Fault Tolerance and its hugely readable predecessors might be, and you will be entertained as hell by character and narrative quirk alike, but it is never anything less than a brilliantly executed piece of beguilingly good sci-fi, the sort that feels epically big but appealingly, emotionally intimate all at once.

(courtesy official author site)

Fault Tolerance, like its trilogy kin, is also liberally sprinkled with some in-your-face, expletive-laden Spanish which, rather happily, is not translated but which relies on you either knowing Spanish, have a quick grasp of using Google’s translational capabilities or being willing to just go with the storytelling, mixed English-Spanish flow.

Writing as someone with limited-to-none Spanish comprehensional ability, and who was happy to let the context be their guide, the giddily enthusiastic placement of Spanish throughout the novel is a breezily intense joy, used between the members of Eva’s estranged but weirdly loving family – their expression of their testy love for each other is both narrative enhancing and downright amusing and central to whomEva is – to show that They Are Not Amused.

It powerfully and playfully emphasises the emotions of a number of key moments in Fault Tolerance, and indeed all of the Chilling Effect series – Chilling Effect (2019) and Prime Deceptions (2020) – and highlights how central Eva’s culture and heritage is to her, even if her family as not exactly one big happy, you know …

It also means, thankfully, that Fault Tolerance and its series mates carry something many sci-fi novels do not, even when they feature disparate legions of humanity from diverse backgrounds – a rich and vivacious expression of a culture that is not white Anglo-Saxon and which affirms that not only did non-British-origin people go into space but they took their precious, winningly and highly-expressive culture with them, surrendering them to no one.

‘What nonsense is this?’ Kilonova shrieked.

‘It’s evolution, baby,’ Eva said. ‘Some people are scared of spiders, some are scared of snakes, and some …’

A small, furry figure wrapped in a form-fitting energy shield strolled into the hallway.

‘Miau,’ Mala said. Then she charged.

It adds a real richness and quite a lot of emotional and narrative punctuation points to the story with Eva’s diverse crew of Min & Sue, a happy LGBTQ+ couple, ship’s doctor and co-captain Pink and unofficial addition Vakar, the agent of an alien race who communicate emotional states via scent, rolling with it all in the way all good found-families who have each other’s backs and trust in each other’s abilities, if not always their robustly good decision-making prowess, tend to do.

Eva is one of those people who, cleverly capable and leadership talented though she is, does tend to lead with her impassioned heart which is great for coming with plans on the run and impetuously acting on them, but not so good for getting the universe to cooperate with you.

So, even though she is well and truly up to the task of saving the universe, her own proverbial and that of her family and crew, she doesn’t always get it right first time or sometimes not at all, and it’s that capacity for feeling first and only fully thinking when the deed has been done or is in the act of the doing which so endears her to you.

You LOVE the fact that smart, funny, quip-ready, fearsomely talented and capable Eva, who does repeatedly save the galaxy from itself, and from starkly present threats, in this case monolithic coffin-like boxes stationed at all the major Stargate-like transport gates throughout the galaxy that preach surrender to a soon-to-be-invading force or death, gets the job done and on her terms but that she isn’t a perfect human being while doing so.

Throughout Fault Tolerance, which has an anarchic Power Rangers meets Transformers meets Pacific Rim vibe going on, all filtered through Valdes awesomely original and refreshingly original take on sci-fi storytelling with quirk and a wryly funny sense of humour, we get exactly what we want, which is a hero taking on a fearsome foe determined to win because #MultipleReasons, but what we need too which is hero who isn’t imperfect and who doesn’t always get it right but who delivers the goods, her imperfect humanity intact, and who reminds that perhaps the best heroes of all are those who know they don’t have it all together but who power on triumphantly anyway.

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