Where peace is lost, may we find it.
Five years ago, Kelana Gardavros lost everything in the war against the Pale empire. Now Kel Garda is just another refugee living on the edge of an isolated star system. No one knows she was once a member of an Order whose military arm was disbanded and scattered across the galaxy. And no one knows that if her enemies found her, they might destroy the entire world to get rid of her.
Where peace is broken, may we mend it.
Kel’s past intrudes in the form of a long-dormant Pale war machine, suddenly reactivated. If the massive automaton isn’t stopped, at best it will carve a swath of devastation that displaces thousands of people. At worst, it will kill every sentient creature on the planet.
Where we go, may peace follow.
When two strangers offer to deactivate the machine for a price, Kel and a young friend agree to serve as their guides. The journey through swamps infested with predators and bandits is bad enough, but can they survive more nefarious dangers along the way? And will Kel’s fear of revealing her secrets doom the very people she’s trying to protect?
Where we fall, may peace rise.
Where Peace is Lost is not a romance. It does have romantic elements, but they don’t rise to the level I would describe as strong. So it’s science fiction with some romantic elements.
We first met Kel as she’s dangling from a large animal called a xoffedil. She was trying to gather the valuable rainbow moss that grows atop the creature. This is how she makes her living. The opening line is wry and engaging, and Kel’s ingenuity makes the reader want to root for her. While this scene works overall as an enticement to read on, it had a couple of problems that recurred in the book. I’ll come back to those later but will cover the story’s positive aspects first.
Throughout, Kel comes across as thoughtful and resourceful. We soon learn that she’s hiding a background that includes skills no one else has, and eventually can surmise that she has a military background. When a war machine left behind by the aggressive culture known as the Pale, maybe because they wear solid white armor, starts on a rampage, a friend inveigles Kel into going to a nearby town for a big conference to address dealing with it.
The Pale say they’ll deal with the machine when they get around to it. But a rampaging weapon of war, unguided but armed, poses a danger to the planet’s culture. Kel recognizes, as her neighbors do, that someone must deal with it. She doesn’t want to be that one because she has secrets to keep, but her a young friend, Lunna, who tells her about it is eager for adventure and plans to attend the meeting. Kel agrees to go to keep an eye on Lunna.
The danger posed by the machine spurs her to retrieve old equipment that might be useful, though she keeps it secret. The situation also spurs her to wonder whether she should use her old skills. What does she owe her adopted planet? How can she help keep its people, including her friends, safe? Can she accomplish enough to be worth exposing her secret? Wrestling with these questions, she often repeats the mantra above.
At the conference on dealing with the machine, Kel and others learn how great a risk it poses. Thousands of people are potentially in danger. Then two offworlders, Savvy and Dare, offer to deal with it for a comparatively modest fee. The village offers them an escort, but they want only a guide. When Lunna enthusiastically volunteers as guide. Kel then feels obligated to go along to protect Lunna, who is young and naïve.
Lunna is also nonbinary, which made reading an interesting experience at times. References to they and them sometimes required a pause to determine whether the pronoun referred to Lunna or to the entire group. This was my first experience reading a nonbinary character, and I think my reading would’ve flowed more smoothly had I been more accustomed to this particular pronoun usage.
The quartet travels across a wide range of territory with varying terrain as they seek out the machine. Kel quickly realizes Savvy and Dev are also hiding secrets, and Valdes uses this adeptly to increase suspense.
The story twists and turns in ways that are both unpredictable and believable. An encounter with bandits early in the journey triggers as chase that runs through the remainder of the story. The action is dynamic, well paced and easy to follow.
Kel and Dare’s mutual attraction simmers with mutual distrust a credible obstacle to it. The obstacle gives way during an event I won’t spoil, but the story’s focus is the out-of-control machine.
The arrival of unexpected players twists the story and sends it toward its conclusion with Kel having to make a fateful decision. We then learn the secret she has been hiding and her reason for doing so. The full revelation is seeded in the story just enough that it both isn’t clear until this point but also is believable when Kel springs it. And I also have to say it’s really, seriously cool.
The worldbuilding, as mentioned previously is original and appealing. This is an eco-friendly culture that views nature as worthy of consideration. City guest houses are free to whoever needs them.
Some of the most original bits, though, weren’t explained sufficiently to be clear to me. The aggressive deadly birds called bladebeaks are red, with razor-sharp beaks and talons, but that’s about all the description there is. A slurx, which has a vast maw and is a large shape under the water, attacks the birds as they feed on their wounded in the water. I would’ve liked a few sentences to describe the slurx. What I’ve mentioned here is all there is.
A character describes the war machine as “five trunks tall and three times that length.” This struck me as a clever unit of measurement that also avoided Terran feet, yards, meters, and such. But, once again, I wanted just a little more. Are we talking tree trunks? What kinds of trees are that big? How many does it take to reach around one? How tall is it? Given the thing’s weight, it’s obviously very big, but I wanted to know more.
In the first scene, there’s no overall description of the xoffedil. Kel mentions that it’s four stories tall, has a tentacled proboscis, and has at least one “middle leg.” That’s all. We don’t know if that middle leg is one of three on a side, five on a side, or maybe in the middle of the front. There’s no reference to color or ears, or exactly what this tentacled proboscis looks like. Is it an elephant’s trunk with four tentacles? The reader doesn’t know.
Every time I hit a description that was interesting but, for me, incomplete, it pulled me out of the story. I didn’t want much, but I needed just a couple of sentences more so I could glide on through the story. Other readers may not react the same way, of course.
I liked the characters in this story a lot. The plot is tightly constructed, has plenty of action-adventure, and moves at a good pace. The worldbuilding is fresh and imaginative. My only quibble is with the incomplete descriptions of things that I would’ve found seriously cool if I’d had just a little more information about them. That was enough of a problem for me to take a little off the rating but didn’t stop me from enjoying the overall story a lot.
Highly recommended. 4.5 stars