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Free Chocolate by Amber Royer. Book Review

June 7, 2018

Cover of Free Chocolate showing a young man an woman with a reptilian alien behind them

Earth has the monopoly on chocolate, because it controls the source. That means it is a highly sought-after commodity that everyone, literally, wants a piece of. When culinary student Bo Benitez gets it into her head that everyone should be entitled to this tightly controlled commodity she turns to theft. But after being caught stealing a cacao pod, she has to make a fast and very messy escape and go on the run. Being brought back for trial is the least of her problems as Bo encounters a raft of bizarre and hungry aliens for whom chocolate is not the only gourmet delicacy they would like to savour.

I don’t think I have ever felt as conflicted about a book. At first the relentless peppering of Spanglish distracted from the flow of the narrative. At times the main protagonist irritated the hell out of me to the point where I wished one of her pursuers would stop messing around and finish the job. But once I settled into the narrative and took a good look at our hapless heroine’s name, Bo or Bodacious, I began to realise that (in the spirit of Jessica Rabbit) Bo was just written that way. In fact, the naming of all the characters in the book (Crosskiss being my laugh out loud favourite) reveals an author with a wicked sense of humour and warped character development skills.

The Spanglish is an integral part of Bo’s voice in this first-person narrative and is what makes the story work so well. She is an extremely naïve young woman, besotted with her hot, Krom boyfriend (think outward human appearance, but with the book lungs of a spider), Brill. Bo always thinks the best of everyone, until they pull a gun on her or try to murder her in inventive ways and is forced into doing something against her non-confrontational nature.

There’s plenty to go at in terms of tight situations out of which Bo must squeeze by the skin of her teeth. There were so many towards the end of the book I did begin to suffer from peril exhaustion, but that might have also have been due to the stress Amber Royer is a class act at inducing through some rather canny writing which balances raucous humour with downright nastiness.

The aliens are brilliant, outrageous imaginings; the descriptions of which are often at their best just before Bo’s potential annihilation. Take for example the moment at which Bo calmly notes as her head lies in the mouth of her would be consumer that he has rinsed with something mint flavoured after his last repast. This was just one of those little touches which made me hang in with the story, as well as the rather splendid characters, Chestla, the predatory alien in charge of Bo’s dorm and Gideon Tyson the reptilian Galactic Inspector with an atrocious accent, described as an “eight-foot-tall humanoid, fer-de-lance”.

Although there is a serious element to the book, which is exploitation of a commodity through commercial monopoly and one person’s attempt to break it, you do need to read Free Chocolate in the spirit in which it is intended. This means you have to think about Free Chocolate in terms of a mash up of “Barbarella” (without the naughty bits), “The Great British Bake Off” and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Although I would need to get my breath back if I do get round to reading the next in this series, I would certainly like to read more of Amber Royer’s work, because she has an incredible imagination and ability to pull together some completely wacky situations, juxtaposing outright comedy with nail-biting moments.

Free Chocolate was courtesy of Angry Robot via NetGalley.

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