Violent, risk-taking, and rule-breaking, Ari Bach's Valhalla trilogy isn't your usual sci-fi series. ♦
Then the second book, Ragnarök, came out, and there started to be even more posts about the series, including one that talked about how the protagonist was a lesbian. My interest skyrocketed; an LGBTQ protagonist made all the difference, and I later discovered that there was a nonbinary trans character as well. Suddenly it wasn’t just any old sci-fi book anymore, nor did it seem to be the kind of LGBTQ story that makes up much of the genre—that is, the “coming out and acceptance” story. It’s LGBTQ genre fiction, which there is not enough of. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money to get the books right away, which worked out fine; I waited to get the books until the third and final of the series, Gudsriki, came out in October, 2015, so I could binge-read the entire trilogy all at once.
The Valhalla trilogy is unlike any other book series I’ve ever read, and certainly none of the science fiction I’ve read really matches up to it. These are without a doubt the most violent and graphic books I’ve ever read, and on some level, the kind of story you might expect to have a straight male protagonist who then goes on to beat all the odds and get the girl in the end and live happily ever after. Except, it’s not. It’s really not. In fact, it’s pretty much the exact opposite. Instead, Valhalla is a story that follows a young woman named Violet McRae, who is considered too violent for society in the year 2230. In the first fifteen pages of the book Violet sees her parents murdered and then kills the three men responsible, and the violence only escalates from there; Violet is recruited by an organization called Valhalla, a kind of secret paramilitary group made up of outcasts (like her) who are considered throwbacks to an earlier, more barbaric time in human history, and in whose service Violet gets to kill people for a living with a specialized insect-knife that’s made out of her sternum and lives in her chest. (NOTE: From this point on, my review will contain a number of minor and major spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.)
To put it bluntly, Valhalla is a fucked up series about fucked up people, and things just get more fucked up as you go. However, that’s not always a bad thing. The characters are not just assholes, or just x or just y; they’re multifaceted and incredibly interesting. There was one character who, at the beginning of the first book, I loved and adored, thought he was hilarious and great, but by the end of the series I resented him and thought his death (I said there would be spoilers) completely deserved. Something I noticed, especially as I was reading the second book, is that you sometimes forget that the characters are terrible people. Their job as part of Valhalla is to keep the world safe from a variety of threats, but just because they have a worthy goal doesn’t mean they’re good people, and the books do a really good job of walking (and sometimes blurring) the fine line between moral behavior and what is considered unacceptable.
The background world that the Valhalla trilogy takes places in is fascinating, set in a future where the world is no longer run by governments as we know them today but is instead divided between two corporations, GAUNE and UNEGA. GAUNE owns the Americas and UKI (United Kingdom Incorporated) while UNEGA owns essentially everything else, save the oceans, which belong to by a group of modified fish-people called Cetaceans. This future is not considered dystopian in the way that The Hunger Games or The Giver are dystopian, but there are certainly aspects of the story that have an element of dystopia. Religion has been banned due to religious wars, and the violent militarization of religion—specifically a pretty clear Christian/Muslim divide that’s all the more unsettling for the reader considering what’s going on in our world right now—is a recurring theme throughout the trilogy, especially in the third book. The government also owns all the gangs, so even crime is in part orchestrated by these “corporate governments.” It’s creepy when you break it down, but the disasters that occur in the book are not brought about by trying to overthrow these corporations. As dystopian as the setting may seem, Valhalla is not “dystopian fiction.” It borrows from the genre in order to look at our own world and, even more, to examine the darker parts of human nature.
Some of the most traumatic moments of violence depicted in the books—which might keep some readers away from the series—are two instances of an attempted sexual assault. The first one is more mentioned than shown, which is probably the more tactful way to go about it, and in this instance the would-be attackers, all men, are murdered for the attempt, but the other instance is something you see happen on the page, though it doesn’t go overly far. (There is also reference made to sexual assault that happened to a character as a child.) While it is made clear that rape is a crime for which the death sentence is the best option, I was nevertheless left wondering, Why include those scenes of sexual violence in the first place? The scenes are for the most part handled well, or at least as well as they could be, and the final verdict will be up to the individual reader, but the subject matter is nevertheless difficult to get through, and something a reader ought to know about going in.
So, given everything I’ve just said about the level of graphic violence in the trilogy, you might now be asking yourself: Why on earth would I want to read something so messed up?
To which I would answer: There’s much more to Valhalla than mindless violence.
For one, Valhalla is, in spots, a very funny series. Even in the darkest of storylines, I would sometimes find myself startled into a laugh by the excellently witty prose and surprising humor, which are both so well-placed and well-paced that they don’t detract from the darkness of the story, though they help keep the graphic content from being overwhelming.
Just as surprising are the complex characterizations throughout; as I said before, this seems like the kind of story where the hero gets the girl and lives happily ever after, like we’ve seen a million times before, but instead of following the usual clichés, Bach gives us characters who feel as complicated and unpredictable as real people. Violet’s love interest in the trilogy is her teammate Vibeke, and their relationship isn’t exactly classic romance. For example, Violet and Vibeke don’t last (there’s one more spoiler), and the relationship between the two is neither the beginning nor end of Vibeke’s love life; she has a romantic history, like all of us (before Violet, Vibeke is with a woman named Mishka) and even after Violet there’s a woman named Nel. Not all of these are good, healthy, relationships or even real relationships—one of them is faked as part of a mission—because, again, every person in the series is incredibly fucked up; Violet herself is not exactly a good person, and she’s the protagonist of the first two books. But this is a strength of the books: the characters feel real, not like proscribed types.
Though this brings me to my last point, and one of my biggest reservations in the series: all four lesbian characters die (the one nonbinary trans character, however, doesn’t) and, as a result, the big question that’s been plaguing me ever since I finished the series was whether this falls directly into the “bury your gays” trope. If you aren’t familiar with the trope, it’s essentially the clichéd notion, overused in fiction, that a gay couple cannot be happy and, as a result, one or both with meet an unfortunate end (i.e., die). Admittedly, in Valhalla, anyone can die (and most everyone does), which could lead you to say that this isn’t the “bury your gays” trope being employed … but it’s nevertheless a very fine line. The end of Gudsriki, the final book of the trilogy, has the Earth flooding, and everyone but the fish people perish. However, Nel and Vibeke die because of other circumstances, and as much as it may sound strange, their death, for them, is a sort of happy ending. It feels earned in an interesting way, and doesn’t feel like the too-easy “bury your gays” trope, both because ninety percent of the world’s population dies and, in the end, the lesbian couple is together, a weird sort of bittersweet happy ending.
In the final analysis, I’m not going to argue that you should run to Amazon or Barnes & Noble to buy these books; I’m certainly aware that this series is not for everyone, and I included the warnings I did for a reason. But if the criteria of LGBTQ genre fiction, graphic violence, and witty writing are something you might be interested in, take a shot at it.