In her 2018 romantic space opera novel Free Chocolate, writer Amber Royer injected elements of telenovelas into a sci-fi story about how chocolate was Earth’s chief export, and the lengths some people will go to get some. In the following email interview, Royer discusses Fake Chocolate (paperback, Kindle), the third and final book of her Chocoverse trilogy.
In my Chocoverse books, you have a future where the aliens landed, took samples of commodities, and missed chocolate. It becomes Earth’s only unique resource in a hungry galaxy, and there’s about to be a war over it.
The story takes place roughly a hundred years in the future, in a world that was devastated by The First Contact War — where Earth was reshaped by greed over who would control chocolate. While the majority of the trilogy happens in space or on alien planets, part of Free Chocolate is set in Brazil, and the first part of Fake Chocolate takes place in Hawaii. These books are comedies, so expect slapstick fun, comic violence, bad jokes, and improbable situations that mimic soap opera tropes. There’s also a romantic thread that runs through the books. I’m a huge fan of bad boy heroes, characters that have steep redemption arcs, found family, loyalty, and love. There’s all my favorite things in these books, along with telepathic alien dragons, shark soldiers who eat insubordinates and stowaways, space pirates, an adorable corgi…and a ton of chocolate.
The basic blurb: Bo Benitez, failed telenovela star, runs to the other side of the galaxy and enrolls in cooking school to escape the vulturazzi, only to be drawn back home when her alien boyfriend convinces her to steal the source of chocolate. She winds up in trouble, running for her life, into danger bigger than she ever imagined — and into an opportunity to change the entire galaxy forever.
And for those who have read the first two books, what is Fake Chocolate about, and how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the previous book, Pure Chocolate?
This is the book where Bo finally gets to go home. Remember in the first book, where she thinks HGB is going to send her to Hawaii to film holomericals, and she winds up in the compound in Rio instead? This time she actually gets to go to HGB headquarters in Maui, complete with the spa and museum and tropical gardens. Fake Chocolate starts about a month after Pure Chocolate ends. The plant disease introduced at the end of Pure Chocolate has infected all of HGB’s cacao plantations, and Earth is in crisis, trying to hide the fact that the chocolate supply is now limited. Rumors that there is a problem with choco-production is making the pirates intent on hijacking cargos of it even more aggressive. HGB once again needs Bo to help with a media campaign. This time she has to deal directly with HGB’s enigmatic CEO, while trying to hold onto the secrets she uncovered in Pure Chocolate, which if revealed could devastate three planets and a horde of telepathic alien dragons.
I tried to structure the story so you could read it on its own, with lots of reminder references to the relevant events from the first two books. So if it has been a while since you picked up Pure Chocolate, you should still be fine. Fake Chocolate has a self-contained plot that really develops Jack, the space pirate only briefly mentioned in each of the first two books, that is tied to a microdot and to a mystery surrounding the true nature of HGB’s CEO.
When in relation to writing Pure Chocolate did you come up with the idea for Fake Chocolate and what inspired this story?
Honestly, this is a natural outcome of threads introduced back in Free Chocolate, ones I knew I would want to elaborate on. I originally wrote Free Chocolate as a stand-alone NaNoWriMo project, and when I worked with my developmental editor on it, he told me I had nailed the telenovela glitz and paparazzi media craziness, but that I needed a big-stakes space opera scale plot with a capital P for the characters to unravel over the course of the series. So the space pirates — which play a big role in Fake Chocolate — are introduced by the incident where Kaliel mistakes the tourist vessel for a pirate ship in Free Chocolate. And the bit in Free Chocolate where Brill talks about having almost being spaced by pirates when he’s confessing to Bo that, yes, he has killed people in the past, provides deep foreshadowing for a big confrontation in this one. So yeah, I designed a spacefaring species with book lungs (similar to spiders and scorpions — which can hold oxygen for extended periods of time and won’t collapse like human lungs), antifreeze in their blood, and the ability to move superhumanly quick for a Fake Chocolate reason. It’s comic in Free Chocolate when Brill gets thrown into a huge chocolate mold and trundled into a blast chiller. In Fake Chocolate…it becomes a lot more serious.
The plant disease that forms the crux of the conflict in Fake Chocolate is the direct fallout of events that happened in Pure Chocolate, and the groundwork for it was laid in the backstory events in Free Chocolate. The plant disease plot line in hits close to reality, and was in part inspired by research my husband and I did on growing cacao trees as office plants. While the disease in my book is genetically engineered, and affecting all the cacao trees on Earth, there are real pod rot diseases that threaten Earth’s real-world chocolate supply. Some statistics put the yearly product loss from disease at 30%-40% of annual yield at cacao farms around the globe. So tie this together with the invasion plot from Free Chocolate, where the aliens want to force open Earth’s boarders to force trade so that they can get beans to grow chocolate, with the idea that a disease is about to wipe out all the chocolate on Earth, and you have a story that can be read alone, but that ratchets up the tension introduced in the first two books.
Free Chocolate and Pure Chocolate were romantic sci-fi space operas. Is that how you’d describe Fake Chocolate as well?
Oh, Fake Chocolate is still absolutely romantic space opera. In addition to the protagonist’s love life (Bo still has challenges in her relationship), this book also addresses Chestla’s need to resolve the romantic triangle introduced in Pure Chocolate. Some readers of the Chocoverse books are huge fans of Chestla, and I imagine they’ll find her subplot the most intriguing part of Fake Chocolate. Chestla’s an alpha predator from a planet where here people are extremely extroverted and communal, who has found herself isolated because most other species are instinctively afraid of her. She winds up having to choose between a (to her) alien who challenges her intellectually and a half Evevron / half Krom who challenges her to be a better person. There’s appeal to both characters, and I drafted most of this book still unsure which one she was going to choose.
There’s more of the big scale space opera stuff in this one, involving more starship battles and small craft conflicts than in the first two combined, but Brill and Kaliel have been pilots since the beginning, so it makes sense that we finally get to see them use their skills.
Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Fake Chocolate but not on Free Chocolate or Pure Chocolate?
You can probably figure out a bit of the plot of Fake Chocolate from this list. A lot of these are YA, because my fascination with this has been percolating for a long time: Mirror Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold; The House Of The Scorpion by Nancy Farmer; Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Goodness Gene by Sonia Levitin; Double Identity by Margaret Peterson Haddix; and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.
There’s also a bit of influence (mainly theme-wise) from: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card; Enemy Mine by Barry B. Longyear; The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas; and The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare.
How about such non-literary influence as movies, TV shows, and video games; did any of them have a big influence on Fake Chocolate?
There’s a scene in Fake Chocolate that involves piloting weaponized drones that plays with the unfairness of the scenario in Guardians Of The Galaxy Volume 2, and flips it to make the protag-side characters make a difficult moral choice.
There may be just a little bit of Lilo And Stitch in the choice to set part of this book in Hawaii, and in the themes of found family and blood family sticking together.
I liked The Sixth Day when it came out enough to buy it on DVD. But I wanted to move past the existential crisis theme it focused on. I wanted characters aware of what and who they are, who can make choices as individuals, despite a shared bank of memories.
Now, in the previous interviews we did about Free Chocolate and Pure Chocolate [which you can read here and here], you talked about how both novels were influenced by telenovelas. It sounds like that’s true for Fake Chocolate as well.
The Chocoverse doesn’t line up one-to-one with any particular telenovela, but more follows the traditional novela structure and heroine’s character arc with a sci fi twist. Unlike many series in the U.S., telenovelas are structured with a story arc and predetermined ending (similar to the way Star Trek: Deep Space 9 was plotted). In the traditional novela structure, a heroine who has some sort of shame — often poverty or scandal — must turn that shame into a strength in order to win the heart of a cold business man / tortured artist / son of a forbidding family and, by protagging with her heart and her values, influence him to become someone worthy of her love. There are seeds of this in most of the really old novelas (particularly anything with the character’s name as the title).
So. In Free Chocolate, Bo totally admits she’s going off script when she’s given her heart to a character who should be the story’s comic relief. But she gets back on script, kind of, when we realize there’s another character Bo’s causing to arc to be worthy of familial love, and that what she’s softening is Earth and the company that runs it. This is why there had to be a book 3: the structure, and Bo’s arc demanded it. Plus, I couldn’t leave things hanging with an alien invasion looming.
But I really want readers to understand the structure. This is not a dystopian series. It’s not about bringing down HGB at the end. That’s just not how a telenovela works.
Novelas abound with family secrets (which I take to the scale of planetary secrets), love triangles (I have several), domineering matriarchs (erm…more Bo’s publicist than her actual mother — mamá is a powerful character without ever becoming domineering), hidden agendas (ohhhhh, I have many), revenge plots (check, check, and check — at least one per book), and outrageous plot twists (erm…yah! But I already spoilered enough — you’ll have to read to get the twists).
I’m intentionally playing with the most cheesetastic soap opera tropes. You know. Did someone die, but there’s no body? Are they really dead? Of course not. Someone acting weird? It must be their evil twin! As these books are predominantly filed as space opera, many of my readers aren’t familiar with those tropes. Without knowing the trope, it’s hard to get the gags. The editor for Pure Chocolate really pushed me to signal the trope I was playing with, to the point where Bo starts to compare her life to a soap opera, and think things like, If this was a novela, character X would show up right now and not be dead and character Y won’t be blamed for killing X. I wish I had done more of that in Free Chocolate, because I think it would have reached a wider audience. My agent asked me at one point if Bo is this ‘verse’s Deadpool, since she used to be a novela star, and definitely notices that parts of her life have dovetailed with the common tropes. I didn’t want to take it quite that far. She doesn’t know she’s in a soap opera. She just sees the parallel between these space-opera scale events and the trope and notes that living inside it isn’t as easy as it looks on TV.
Free Chocolate and Pure Chocolate were published by Angry Robot, but you are putting Fake Chocolate out yourself. How, if at all, did this influence what you wrote in Fake Chocolate or how you wrote it?
I actually had the outline in hand for Pure Chocolate and Fake Chocolate at the same time, so the content didn’t change all that much. As I said, I had had an arc in mind for Bo after working with my editor for Free Chocolate to develop the story. I knew the ending I wanted to get to. His comments were about not being afraid to tell the story, even if it resulted in a long book. Even if it was quirky. Even if not everyone would get it. I think that carried over into Fake Chocolate, even if working without an editor felt a bit like trapeze work without a net.
Working with the other editor on Pure Chocolate taught me about making sure the audience wasn’t confused by the tropes, or that I wasn’t being too subtle and the audience was like, well, did he kill somebody (offscreen) or not? I learned a great deal about how to make individual pieces of information stand out as memorable using chapter breaks, not cluttering things with too many clues, or introducing one piece of the needed information four chapters away from the next piece. I tried to use those same techniques in Fake Chocolate.
Now I’m working with a freelance editor, who mainly wants me to amp up my descriptions. So I guess I’m carrying the lessons I learned from Angry Robot with me.
You have said that Fake Chocolate is the third and final book in your Chocoverse series. This may prompt some people to read all three books in the series back-to-back. Do you think this is the best way to experience this story, or should people put some distance between them?
I think you should binge read them in a weekend.
Kidding! They’re thick books. Though people do say they’re fast reads… But seriously, there’s a momentum to the story, and little pieces of worldbuilding that — while they still work with more separated reading — are more impactful with the previous books fresh in mind. For instance, there’s a character death in the first book that Bo connects with on a visceral level and results in Frank getting the dog that he’s holding on the cover of Fake Chocolate. Remembering Botas’s previous owner — who, as a deceased character, obviously isn’t in the later books — reminds you how much things have changed, and how far these characters — Bo and Frank, especially — have arced.
Structurally, as I said above I’m intending this as a novela on the page, which means there’s a character-driven arc to the whole thing, and staying inside Bo’s head for the whole trilogy to read as a single piece isn’t a bad thing. You really get the impact of her arc, of the subtle shifts in her relationship with Brill as she understands more about his culture and his past, and of the interplanetary dynamics.
In a similar vein, some people who write trilogies later expand on them with short story collections or novellas or sequel trilogies. Are you planning to do something similar with the Chocoverse?
I did an Indigogo for Fake Chocolate, and one option I offered to people who supported it is a customized short story where the reader is a named character who gets to go on an adventure with either Chestla or Bo and Brill. I’m currently working out the logistics of how writing the reader in will work, but I had a ton of fun outlining the stories. If it comes out as well as I hope, I’ll try to find a way to offer a couple more of these to fans.
I had a story set in the Chocoverse appear in the Fall 2019 edition of Amazing Stories, and there’s one about the early stages of Bo and Brill’s relationship (pre-Free Chocolate) that I made available through Bookfunnel. I’m planning a couple more bite sized Chocoverse pieces over the summer. I still have a lot to say in this verse, and might someday do another trilogy that focuses more on Krom and their history. But I have a couple of other projects I want to give time to first.
I’ve met a lot of people in the real-world chocolate industry since Free Chocolate first came out. And their stories are so interesting. No one I’ve talked to ever grew up thinking, you know, when I’m an adult I want to be Willy Wonka. So I’m working on a mystery about a woman who loses everything and decides to start over by becoming a craft chocolate maker. And there’s a non-chocolate-related time travel manuscript that I need to finish. Which now needs to involve avocados. Apparently.
Finally, if someone enjoys Fake Chocolate and the other books of the Chocoverse, what sci-fi space opera trilogy that’s complete should they read next?
Does it have to be a trilogy? If they haven’t read it, Chocoverse fans should immediately go out and get [Douglas Adams’] The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and all related books.
If they’ve read that, they should go find John Scalzi’s Red Shirts. It’s a stand-alone, but it plays with Star Trek tropes in a similar way to some of what I’m doing in the Chocoverse.