Disclaimer: Free Chocolate is a space opera by Amber Royer, not a promotion for sweet treats. The premise of the book is that in a futuristic world, chocolate is now one of Earth’s most valuable currencies, and it needs to be kept safe.
One of the things that I loved is that the main character—a Latina woman named Bo—is highly capable and instigates a lot of action in the novel, from stealing a cacao pod to becoming a fugitive who uncovers conspiracies underlying the ways chocolate is being traded in the universe. I find it a breath of fresh air to have a nonwhite female character take the lead in an action-filled science-fiction novel. Women of color are often underrepresented as lead characters in this sci fi, and this strong, likable woman is a breath of fresh air in a genre that still tends to be dominated by white men.
Also, chocolate lovers will not be disappointed: the setting of this novel is a world where chocolate is the primary form of currency and the center of an intergalactic conflict. When I read that “there are already some parts of the galaxy where Snickers bars are being used as currency,” I found myself laughing out loud. When my husband asked what I was laughing at and I told him about the plot line, he exclaimed, “Oh! It’s like a dystopian Willy Wonka!” This is an accurate statement.
Food is very important in the world of Free Chocolate. At the beginning of the book, the author writes that “when your whole planet’s economy centers around something edible, foodies are more popular than rock stars.” This definitely sets the tone for the entire novel.
If descriptions the feature comparisons to food and drink themes are your cup of hot chocolate, this is the book for you. There are so many delicious phrases, like statements that “the sofa’s velvety fabric looks like somebody sifted baking soda over it” for describing a scene. Drink preferences are used to describe characters: “I’m more of a wine person myself, but if a friend needs you to drink a beer with them to cheer them up, you drink the beer.” A sexually charged relationship is described by the kiss’s flavor: “I kiss him, tasting the bitter hops on his tongue, and it’s one of the most intense, electric moments of connection I ever had.” And a conflict occurs in this love interest over chocolate: “Did you come to that party looking for me because you thought that I could get your closer to chocolate?” Personally, these types of word choices, which are both foodie friendly and humorous, are one of my favorite parts of the novel.
However, at other times, the premise of sweets as a trade is no joke, as when it is being used as a currency for getting veterinary care for a cat. When “two standard size chocolate bars, one dark and one milk” are offered, the excited response is “that will just about cover it.” This is just one of the ways where the seriousness of chocolate as currency is highlighted.
While I loved Bo’s strength of character and the way the author created descriptions. there were times that I felt that the plot points came too quickly. One moment the character would be at a chocolate festival, and the next scene they would be at a spaceport with a romantic encounter followed by being caught by the police—all in the same chapter. This kind of pacing kept going throughout the entire novel. While I do understand that it is meant to be an action-packed story, I personally need to have a scene where a character slows down a little bit for some kind of reflection to consider a novel excellent. That’s where the novel falls short for me.
But I would still consider Free Chocolate a fun read and would recommend it for a lighter read this summer . . . one you will want to read with your favorite form of chocolate nearby. I read this novel in a café, and it took a tremendous amount of restraint to not go over and purchase as many chocolate treats as possible.