Valerie Valdes’s 2023 Where Peace Is Lost is a science fantasy novel. While it could serve as volume one of an ongoing series, it works as a stand-alone novel.
Facing a war whose costs would be unbearable even should her side win, Kelana Gardavros helped broker a peace with the rapacious Prixori Anocracy, also known as the Pale. Following the cessation of overt hostilities, Kel went into exile. For five years, she has lived quietly on Loth.
Loth is a backwater planet too distant and poor for the Pale to bother conquering it. This will not prevent the Pale from presenting a clear and present danger to Loth. It will not save Kel from being forced to choose between maintaining her low profile or trying to save her neighbors.
While Loth has nothing worth stealing, the Pale left a mothballed military base on the planet, commissioned during a conflict elsewhere that is long over. The base is located far from the occupied regions of the planet. This is fortunate, as the distance buys the Lothians time they will desperately need.
For reasons unclear, a Pale war machine has been activated. It is grinding toward Lothian communities and nature preserves. The so-called demolisher can easily lay waste to anything it encounters. The Pale has no interest in dispatching someone to shut the machine down. A direct attack on the machine might force an automated response from the base; such responses can sterilize continents. Some more subtle response is needed.
Enter off-worlders Captain Savvy Vyse and her bodyguard Darennir “Dare” Tanseith. Savvy claims to have the means to deactivate the war machine. For a suspiciously reasonable fee, she will do so. For the off-worlders to have appeared with the exactly the solution needed just when it was needed raises a lot of questions. Perhaps the most important question is “does Loth have any better options?” Lacking such, the government agrees to the captain’s price.
This leaves only the small matter of delivering Savvy and Dare to the war machines. They had planned to fly to the machine, but all flights have been grounded for the duration of the emergency. The off-worlders reluctantly accept Lothian claims that the wilderness is too challenging for newcomers to traverse safely. They will need a guide.
Kel prudently does not volunteer … at first. Her exuberant young friend Lunna does. Fearing Lunna will perish without an adult minder, Kel has no alternative but to join the expedition.
The war machine is heavily armed. The wilderness ahead is filled with hungry wildlife. Savvy and Dare’s true motivation is unclear. The wilderness hides bandits and worse. At every turn, the situation grows worse. Survival may require Kel to reveal superhuman abilities she has carefully hidden.
Revealing them could save the quartet while dooming Loth. Kel may be done with the Pale, but the Pale is not finished with Kel.
Galactic scale nations are well established in SF and it really wouldn’t be space fantasy without talented warriors able to defeat advanced military robots using only their demigod levels of prowess and nigh-magical swords. The literary models in play here are well established.
What baffles me is the real world sources. What possible real-world model could Valdes have for powerful, aggressively expansionistic nations who view all others with contempt and whose word is worthless? I suppose we shall never know.
A comparison I didn’t expect to make when I began this novel was “this reminds me of Keith Laumer.” The destructor could very easily be a Continental Siege Engine1 under a different name. An old war machine suddenly reactivating to carve its way across a planet is very Laumer.
Unlike Laumer, however, Valdes is aware that women and other people who are not men have inner lives.
In fact, Valdes goes so far as to make it clear that while on a grand scale the Pale is a vast assembly of monumental dicks, its own population, even the people on whom it depends for expansion, are often victims of the Pale as well. The Pale-affiliated antagonists are almost cartoonishly greedy and amoral, but the text takes time to explain why that looks like the least bad choice to the characters in question2.
This was a lot of fun to read. The stakes escalate throughout the novel. While there is ample room for sequels, the novel stands on its own. The characters are ones about whose fates readers will care. The novel was exactly what I was looking for at this time.
1: This is where the link to my review of Bolo would go, if I’d reviewed Bolo. Which I haven’t. I recently reviewed a Retief novel so it will be a while before I circle back to Laumer.
2: While there is evidence to suggest that the Pale is not sustainable, the odds are poor that this unsustainability will doom the Pale in time to rescue the worlds unfortunate enough to border it.