Are you afraid of falling, baby?
No, I’m afraid of landing.
[He’s laughing and I’m smiling.]
Stupid idiot smile, don’t you know what comes next?
Sirantha Jax is a jumper. A carrier of the J-gene, she has the rare ability to navigate through Grimspace (and if you want to know what that is, read the fragging book). The story opens with Jax incarcerated in a Corporation facility in the aftermath of a jump gone bad. She is the sole survivor of a crash that killed 82 souls, including her pilot and lover, Kai. Jax has been jumping for fifteen years - a record high; for jumpers burn out fast and end up either dying mid jump, or quitting when they sense they are close to burnout. She is in deep grieving for Kai and her mind is close to destroyed, in no small part thanks to the interrogation techniques employed by the Corp Psychs, who are trying to get her to confess to crashing The Sargasso.
Jax is rescued from her cell by a mysterious man called March, the leader of a renegade band of fighters seeking to break the Corp monopoly on intersteller travel - and they need Jax in order to create a new breed of jumper.
Right. I was worried when I started Grimspace that I would be ill-equipped to deal with the sci-fi aspect of the story, as I don’t read in the genre. Luckily, my background in TV sci-fi is fairly solid (the various incarnations of Star Trek, Firefly, the new Battlestar Galactica) and I found myself settling into Aguirre’s world comfortably enough. Too comfortably, perhaps: I kind of wish one of the reviewers hadn’t said it reminded her of Firefly/ Serenity, for I immediately began to make comparisons with the show, and Whedonverse in general:
A rag tag assembly of quirky characters who quip at the most importune of times? Check.
Small women with immense power? Check. (looking forward to finding out more about Kerri)
Scary intersteller organisation seeking to impose hegemony over all civilised worlds, against which our heroes are fighting? Check.
More generally, any sci-fi from Star Trek to Battlestar has a certain core group of characters aboard a ship - captain, hot shot pilot, grumpy engineer, Doc, and the alien who allows us to gain perspective on our own humanity. (I suppose in romance parlance, these characters are the equivalent of the Other Woman, the Bad Mommy, the Slimy Rapist, the Fairy God Mother etc etc).
So anyway, sci-fi conventions all present and correct. (‘Jumping’ is also a term I've encountered in Battlestar Galactica, although Aguirre has taken this beyond the FTL travel and into grimspace, which is a very cool and interesting concept, particularly in the interdependent relationship it creates between jumper and pilot.)
Indeed, as I was reading Grimspace, I noted it was like watching an action movie, lots of action, great visuals. And Aguirre creates a vivid set of characters and locations, each more strange and exotic than the next. It is an eminently readable book, with short, crisp chapters and a constantly moving story that picks up speed nicely towards the end. The immediacy of the present tense-first person narrative means we experience everything with Jax, which adds to the excitement. (On the down side, there are times when everything is exploding and lives are in danger and Jax is explaining something utterly mundane and I’m thinking - run now, cogitate later!)
What makes Grimspace stand out are three things. Firstly, the writing. Aguirre is good and shows promise of getting better. I loved bits like this - The sky looks like a boiled potato - and this - A smile like a corrupt halo file flickers at the edges of her mouth. Her evocation of Jax’s loss and emotional fragility is also very good. I liked reading this book.
Secondly, there is Jax herself. So often authors attempt to create tough female protagonists and end up with wimpy losers. With Jax, you get what it says on the label. She is tough; she fights first, thinks later (thinking isn’t her strong suit, she readily admits). When it comes to saving her own skin, she’s a committed survivor and when it comes to making hard decisions, she doesn’t think about the children, she thinks about the odds. I love it. Plus, she enjoys sex, is more than happy to have good sex with a hot guy if it ensures safe passage (seriously!) and even remarks at one point, I know I don't look as good as I did before the crash, but I’m a rocket in bed. Cool, no?
Thirdly, the body count. I appreciate an author who can kill off her characters, and Aguirre really piles up the body count.
What doesn’t work for me is the romance, and part of that is related to the character of March. In a story bristling with quirky, unusual characters, there is something depressingly familiar about March. He is a Romance Hero and there is no escaping it. His fate is revealed from the first, when he is described as having a 'rough hewn, authoritative face’ and a ‘saturnine smile.’ I have no idea what he looks like, but I know he’s the Romantic Interest. Show me a rough hewn face that isn’t.
The romance between Jax and March is almost shoehorned in, and most clumsily at first. Jax is annoyingly juvenile in her initial interactions with him - There’s a five year old inside me that wants to kick his shins. This sort of elementary school flirtation just sits wrong, particularly when she is simultaneously recovering from the recent death of her lover. I could have done with a less antagonistic relationship between these two, perhaps based on mutual, grudging respect and a strong attraction.
March has a troubled past and a hyperactive saviour complex. He develops over the course of the story, but I guess there’s no breaking the mold, for in the end he remains a familiar creature: an incredibly powerful male - he’d kill the world for me - with a tortured past. It is his love for Jax that saves him and any threat to her life that unleashes his terrifying power.
I thought the resolution to the story was rushed and a little too easy (did no one else think to check the agenda?), but like a well executed action movie, it left me with a good buzz.
A highly recommended B.
[An aside: I would be really interested to know what a sci-fi reader thought of Grimspace. Does it break new ground? What kind of sci-fi is it? Leave a comment.]