It has been a while since I did a book review here for the blog, so let's get down to business! The book for today is Valkyrie by Meg Ludwa (Twitter), a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Set on the space station Odin Prime, this was once a promised place. A gateway to the new world Valhalla just below. The fungal disease of Ink ended all of that.
The galaxy put the station under quarantine and those in power reacted badly to being cut off, turning their back on the galaxy in turn. A three tier caste system has developed between the Statesmen, citizens, and non-citizen refugees that fled the surface of Valhalla. Those living in the Dome, the upper parts of the station, get the lion’s share of the resources and rights, but they also live under the watchful control established by Chancellor Tristan. Any deviance from the State’s moral code is met with brutal oppression and often death.
The Chancellor’s niece Dr. Shae Tristian has so far lived a life of privilege in the Dome due to her status as a Statesman. Circumstances have her collide with the tortured soul and former Valkyrie, Victoria Hammond, and the criminal organization she works with. Taken down into the refugee quarters in the old Warehouse district, Dr. Shae finds people in far more need than she could have possibly imagined under the care of the ruthless but sympathetic Mama Wilder, a major leader among the refugees.
As political machinations start reaching their conclusion around them, Shae, Victoria, and Wilder’s son Simon find themselves facing the past of their families, the station, and themselves. Deep secrets that have been kept from them all hold the potential for hope in the future, but also could destroy any chance of ending the reign of Chancellor Tristan’s pitiless control.
CW for Graphic violence and executions by the State and Gangs; Graphic descriptions of disease, injury, and death; Death of children, pregnant women, and infants from disease; Kidnapping; Unethical medical experimentation; Mind-control and mental conditioning; State suppression of LGBTQ+ persons; Racism and Apartheid; References to past family opposition to a Gender Transition; References to past suicide attempts; State suppression of religious beliefs; State-sponsored personality cults. I am sure much more I have forgotten to note here. This is not a feel-good book and a lot goes wrong for the characters!
As a book with references to Norse mythology and a caste society in the summary, I was expecting some of the nasty elements that popped up in this book like the racism and othering of the Valhalla refugees. Racism is not in-your-face, but skin color is referenced once or twice in instances of discrimination against Black refugees. Instead, the refugees are reviled as a drain on station resources only to be exploited to do the worst of the jobs on the station or on the last little foothold Odin Prime have maintained on the planet. They are practically forced to live in the lower levels of the station and made to steal, scrounge, or take their pittance pay to get the resources they need to survive.
What I was not expecting though was how many parallels I could draw between the society of the Dome and North Korea. The mandatory worship of the Patriarch, a new religious movement that was started by Councilor Tristian to control state morality resembles the personality cults and propaganda of the Kim Family. The State’s treatment and privileges given to Statesmen strongly resemble those given to Worker Party members. The callous treatment of citizens for minor violations resulting in banishment, the loss of rights, or execution is commonly recorded. While homosexuality has not historically been banned in North Korea (so far as we know), it is regularly derided as being a Western corruption in the outward facing elements of state media and the existence of LGBTQ+ persons practically unknown in most of society. There are strict morality laws against “decadent” behavior, so it is likely that anyone perceived outside of the cis-het norm would be heavily prosecuted. I am not attempting to say that this was the author’s intentions, but a parallel I was able to draw from my own studies and experiences.
Despite what I have said about the settings, the true strength of Valkyrie lies in Meg Luwda’s character work. I found Shae not that hard to sympathize with, both in her suppressed attraction to women that she is only beginning to realize that the start of the book and her struggles in reconciling State propaganda with the reality that she sees in the lower levels of Odin Prime. Despite moments of doubt, she truly tries to break the hold the old ways of thinking have on her. The experience of her childhood friend’s pregnancy has a major effect on her.
Victoria is also an interesting character. Considering some of the emotional and physical trauma she has been inflicted with, it is a miracle that she has managed to reach the point where she is at the beginning fo the book. I can certainly imagine her taking years to recover to that state. I am hopeful that she will be able to make some further recovery considering the situation Victoria and Shae find themselves in by the end of the story.
I wish we had more time to explore more of Simon. We discover that he has been raised mainly by his mother due to his father’s rejection of his transition earlier in life and him needing to be elsewhere for work reasons. He is a kind and sympathetic character, partly a foil to his mother’s ruthlessness in the Shadow crime organization. I wonder what he will be getting up to following the end of the book and what role he will play in the space station with a much more outwardly oppressive State.
Valkyrie is a book that leaves the reader in a good place in a story that did not have a whole lot of positive progress for the protagonist in it. I will admit that I fully expected to see the story dead end with the hopelessness of the characters’ missions, but the sacrifice of some will hopefully lead to a satisfying conclusion or at least a fighting chance of one in the sequels. I will give this story a 9/10 and look forward to a sequel.