The Valmont Contingency
A number of readers recommended Val Roberts to me on a thread about looking for SF romances. Overall, The Valmont Contingency was a solid read, and you definitely can’t beat the price point. However, some logic and plot errors, alongside a completely avoidable fetishizing of Japan, held this back.
Tasha Ocazek is the illegitimate and unloved daughter of a businessman who hopes to gain entry to a lucrative cartel family by bartering Tasha in marriage. When a cartel heir doesn’t turn up to a date/negotiation dinner, Tasha’s father accepts the next offer: marriage to a psychotic mega-billionaire who drugs his female companions and keeps them as slaves. Tasha’s had enough. To escape, she stows away on a starship – but, unfortunately, one that’s running contraband. When the ship is captured, so is Tasha.
Garrick ben Khalid, scion of the Khalid cartel family, is the Navy captain who finds himself with an unexpected – and unexpectedly attractive – stowaway. He knows Tasha as a tabloid-fodder socialite airhead, and is shocked that under her other legal name, Marie Valmont, she has secretly completed a medical course. His ship is short a medic (theirs having been drafted into ground combat), so he signs Tasha on. But more is going on aboard his ship than basic patrolling. The Direwolf is an experimental ship, constantly being tinkered with.
There’s a strange zombie-like infection on the ships they’ve been stopping. Tasha’s medical qualification may make her a target for the draft. Worst of all, the cartel heir who stood Tasha up, triggering her catastrophic engagement? It was Garrick – but he hasn’t told her who he is.
There are well-executed space opera elements here. Much of the book is set on ships, which are well developed as settings; Garrick initially finds Tasha by searching the sewage compartments of the ship where she’s stowed away. A scene where Garrick is injured answering a distress call and Tasha has to figure out how to transport his damaged body through airlocks between ships is excellently done. Additionally, there are space and Navy-related legal and jurisdictional issues. How should Tasha handle the legal consequences of stowing away and exiting without a visa? Is Garrick her boss, and what does that mean for their relationship?
Garrick likes Tasha right away. I always enjoy a relationship where the hero knows that the heroine is exactly what he wants and doesn’t have any angst or drama about it. One obstacle is obviously his identity, but I felt better about its resolution than I do about most Big Mis-type plots. Another issue is Garrick’s protectiveness. I liked that this was a general character trait for him with friends, family, and crew, not just a chest-beating alpha reaction to girlfriend. Their dynamic is also more nuanced than ‘he wants her protected; she wants to be free.’ Both are occasionally right and occasionally wrong about what Tasha should attempt, and sometimes they – gasp! – compromise.
Now, the downsides. A major plot point involves someone wanting to get a DNA sample from Tasha, and they act as though this can only be done by controlling her entire body. Modern humans are nowhere close to spaceflight, and all we need is a used hairbrush! There is a sequence where Tasha is threatened and makes a choice so dumb I reread the convoluted dialogue the author gives her and I still can’t figure out why she did it.
And there is SO MUCH weirdness about Japan here. The Republic, where Tasha and Garrick live, borders the Nippon Empire, where Tasha was born. Tasha’s mother is a geisha house owner, the only “round-eye” (yes, that exact phrase is used) to rise to an elite geisha rank. Tasha wears traditional makeup as her socialite persona, part of how she can attend college as Marie Valmont without being recognized. Why did the author contort herself in the plot to ensure that we would have not one, but two white women as our primary representatives of Japan? Why is Japanese culture reduced to an artisan group often misperceived as prostitutes, a makeup subculture, and an eye shape? It’s bad.
I still believe that a great SF romance is the hardest book to find in Romancelandia. I didn’t find greatness here, but there’s still some enjoyable fun, especially at just 99 cents.