This enjoyable space opera romp features a feisty, no-holds-barred heroine with a troubled past and an unusual ability that puts her in a variety of life-threatening and difficult situations. Sounds familiar? It should do -- unless you’ve been walking into bookshops and libraries with your eyes shut for the past couple of years. Take away the vampiric/werewolf trappings and the urban settings; and you’re looking at a science fiction version of the dark urban fantasy that has become so popular. Indeed, Aguirre has also written an urban fantasy series featuring a feisty, no-holds-barred… you get the idea.
As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through grimspace -- a talent that cuts into her life expectancy but makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp. But then the ship she’s navigating crash-lands, and she’s accused of killing everyone on board. It’s hard for Jax to defend herself: she has no memory of the crash.
Imprisoned and subjected to a ruthless interrogation, Jax is on the verge of madness, when a mysterious man breaks into her cell offering her freedom – for a price. March needs Jax to help his small band of rogue fighters break the Corp monopoly on interstellar travel and establish a new breed of jumper. She accepts. After all, she is only good at one thing – grimspace. As it will eventually kill her, she may as well have some fun in the meantime…
In common with many of the current crop of urban fantasy reads, the inevitable love interest doesn’t hold up the action in this vivid page-turner. Jax’s first love was killed in the crash and she spends a chunk of the book grieving for him. In fact, the subject of death figures a great deal in this book and its sequel.
Somehow I thought it’d be clear, that I’d be able to pinpoint how many jumps remain to me. I always thought jumpers chose to go out in style instead of the sad impotence of retirement. Now I’m seeing that simply isn’t so.
Because even now that I’m rested, I don’t know how much I have left in reserve. My next jump could be my last, or I might make twenty more. I’m just not sure, but I am positive I’m not as strong as I used to be.
(Grimspace, p. 148)
Navigating a ship through grimspace significantly shortens a jumper’s life expectancy. Indeed, Jax has already outlived all her contemporaries -- other than those who chose to retire and become teachers. But she has already decided that isn’t a lifestyle choice available to her, addicted as she is to the lure of grimspace. However, those around her have little patience or understanding with her frequent thoughts about her impending death, particularly March. One of the many sources of conflict between the two of them.
Aguirre’s depiction of a space jumper apart from the general run of humanity, with her own closed ethos and set of rules suddenly bumping up against a group of people with differing attitudes, is generally effective. Jax’s ability to alienate everyone around her is impressive, but as the book and its sequel, Wanderlust, progresses, she is forced to reassess her priorities and attitudes. I think this is one of the undoubted strengths of this sub-genre and one of the reasons for its great popularity. Offer up a heroine in the middle of a major crisis, present her with yet more life-changing problems – and then watch her change.
I do have a couple of niggles. The characterisation of Jax is mostly spot-on, but I have trouble believing that a girl, who in her former life was a devoted fashion follower, wouldn’t get her disfiguring burn scars dealt with at the earliest opportunity, rather than keep them as some kind of memorial to her dead lover. It’s not serious, but it does slightly jar with me. I also think that as soon as Carl receives the nosebleed on the planet Lachion in chapter 8, everyone would stop fighting and immediately run for cover, rather than resume their battle.
On the other hand, one of the strengths of Aguirre’s writing is the first person POV in present tense, which gives Jax’s voice a fresh immediacy encouraging the reader to feel real sympathy for her character.
Deep down, I know it’s move or die. Haven’t I been imagining desertion the whole time I’ve been locked up in here? Trying to figure out a way to escape? And now it’s been handed to me, I’m like a caged bird, afraid to venture beyond the bars, terrified of what lies beyond. That’s new. I didn’t used to feel like that, used to be the first to dive into free fall.
(Grimspace, p. 8)
It is the personal relationships and Jax’s own reaction to what is going around her that is the undoubted centre of this book. While the world adequately hangs together and certainly seems solid enough to keep Jax, her companions and enemies fully occupied, Aguirre’s far future is almost cosy in its familiarity. She certainly isn’t in the business of creating original worlds or arrestingly unusual technological gismos to give us pause for thought. The notion of ships jumping through some other dimension veiled in secrecy has been regularly used as a device to overcome the problem of deep-space travel. We are also on more than nodding terms with a large, power-hungry institution who ruthlessly exploits personnel for its own ends, like the Farwan Corporation, which doesn’t even have a particularly inventive name…
As a science fiction fan, am I bothered? Not for a nanosec. There are plenty of writers creating worlds eye-bulging in their complexity and originality, whose characters possess the depth of a pavement puddle. Hard-core fans generally speak of these authors with hushed respect. While critics fall over themselves to find yet more metaphorical links between these worlds and our current society, yet managing to gloss the fact that their protagonists’ dialogue often manages to make a Thunderbirds script seem realistically raw. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy their work - I do. But I happen to think that the genre should be big enough to encompass Aguirre’s version of science fiction without the eye-rolling dismissal it often gets from a sizeable chunk of the fan-base.
Many young women in search of romantic reads have concluded the traditional ‘and they lived happily ever after’ in these days of serial monogamy and spiralling divorce statistics is even less realistic than the worlds of vampires and werewolves, created by the likes of Charlaine Harris and Kelley Armstrong. So why not explore the notion of finding Mr Right behind the controls of a Starship?
And Aguirre’s Grimspace and its equally enjoyable sequel Wanderlust, gives us so much more than a formulaic girlie just waiting for some strong male to come along and sweep her off her feet.