Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Saturday, 1 March 2008

GRIMSPACE, BY ANN AGUIRRE

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.]

9 comments:

Tumperkin said...

Yeah - I'd like to know what sci-fi fans thought of it as well. I'm less (much less!) knowledgeable about sci-fi than you so perhaps that things that perhaps seemed conventional to you passed me by completely. (This feeling of complete ignorance is familiar territory since I've started reading paranormals. Being so new to the paranormal genre, I have no idea whether something that strikes me as a clever bit of storytelling is that author's uniquely brilliant idea or a tired old bit of genre-cliche. Sigh).

I actually thought Aguirre portrayed Jax's grief very sensitively and I liked the romance between Jax and March. Hey he might be all rough-hewn and tortured but I like rough-hewn and tortured. I did feel that what made March tick wasn't as apparent as is usually the case with romance heroes but I felt that was a side-effect of her (correct) decision to write this in the first person.

For me, although this book wasn't perfect (the ending, for example, was a bit too pat) I loved it. Recent reading experiences (Demon Moon springs to mind again) are leading me to the notion that as well as the all the other factors that make a reading experience good or bad, there is the question of 'chemistry' between author and reader. Sometimes a book seems to have it all - good writing, good characters, good story etc. - but I just don't love it. The X factor that makes something a keeper just isn't there.

Meriam said...

I'm less (much less!) knowledgeable about sci-fi than you so perhaps that things that perhaps seemed conventional to you passed me by completely

I wouldn't say I'm knowledgeable: it's been years since I read in the sci-fi/ fantasy genre. But I do watch a lot of tv... maybe too much. Which means I watched Buffy, Angel, Firefly. I watch Battlestar and the Gilmore Girls (all that mad dialogue and obsessive pop culture references - very Jenny Crusie), and assorted sci fi. So with Aguirre, I felt she had a very direct inspiration from a couple of these sources. The characters - particularly Jax - felt new but the setting and context didn't. Not in a bad way, just so I wasn't immediately wowed and could be a little more critical.

I read somewhere that the story felt 'episodic,' which I also agree with, but not necessarily in a negative way. Oh, and the ending was far too pat, I agree. I really liked the first person, no complaints there.

I actually thought Aguirre portrayed Jax's grief very sensitively and I liked the romance between Jax and March.

Again, agree with the first part... but March wasn't anything new. I didn't even feel their relationship was new. And in parts, I found it a little intrusive and obvious and far too soon in the context of all that beautifully portrayed grief.

Speaking of reader-writer chemistry, I've read a lot of 'good' books recently, books that I've really enjoyed, but in one way or the other have just missed the mark for me and stayed in B+ territory. This year, the only two books that really worked for me (that I 'loved') were Loretta Chase's Not Quite a Lady (I'm a sucker for her) and Liz Carlyle's The Devil to Pay. They both had faults (Carlyle in particular always starts strongly but often loses me near the middle/ end) but I really enjoyed them.

And - yey - they're historicals. For all the paranormals I'm trying, it's great my one true love is still holding strong.

Ann Aguirre said...

The thing I find most interesting is that readers compare Grimspace to pretty much any SF program or film they've ever seen. To date, it's been likened to:

Firefly
Battlestar Galactica
Star Trek
Babylon 5
Star Wars

There may be others; those are just the ones I've seen. Now for the most, I've never even seen those shows. Firefly? Only a couple of episodes, not the whole season. BG? Never watched the old version, saw only a couple episodes of the new. Star Trek? I watched TNG and DS9 ages ago. Babylon 5? I've never seen it. Ever.

Star Wars? I saw it as a kid, didn't like it all that much.

I think perhaps you've hit on something in the nature of the action, visual aspect of the book. It reminds people of a fast-paced program more than a weighty SF novel that deals with social issues and the technology that alienates people, etc, etc.

In the shows / films referenced, the viewer bonds with the crew and is allowed to become invested in their fate. That's what I tried to do with Grimspace. So I do wonder if these comparisons, other than the general SF tropes, have more to do with the nature of the story than any actual resemblance.

Meriam said...

I've also heard it compared to Futurama!

To be honest, I've only seen a few Firefly episodes (always meant to watch the rest, never got the time) and if you haven't seen the new Battlestar Galactica I highly, highly recommend it!

I think perhaps you've hit on something in the nature of the action, visual aspect of the book. It reminds people of a fast-paced program more than a weighty SF novel that deals with social issues and the technology that alienates people, etc, etc.

I think you dealt with social issues and technology!

Ann Aguirre said...

They moved BG around so much that we lost track of it and then we were several seasons behind. I think my husband intends to buy them on DVD, and then we'll watch from the beginning. I hate not watching programs in order and feeling that I've missed something along the way.

"I think you dealt with social issues and technology!"

I did? Well, if so, it was purely incidental. My goal is always to entertain, never to deal with any issues. *g*

kmont said...

I'm about halfway through Grimspace and Luuuuving it. Unfortunately, one of my dogs decided to feast on it so now I need another copy. Hopefully I can get it today.

Used to read mainstream sci-fi all the time, fantasy too. I've just recently (well, last couple of years or so) decided to slowly start picking them up again. I don't know that Grimspace is breaking any new ground as of yet (alas, need that new copy to finish), but it certainly is a tightly written plot, as Ms. Sinclair quotes on the cover. One of the best paced stories I've ever read actually and I'm not feeling a rush while reading it. I kinda like that there's no meandering. The concept is fascinating, the first person voice of the heroine unique and engaging. If you like 1st POV in the first place, it's a strong bet Jax will tickle that preference. So far it's shaping up to be a top pick, high rated read for me.

Meriam said...

Hi kmont. You're right, it was eminently readable. I liked the tight chapters, the brisk pacing. Definitely, Jax and her 'voice' stood out as the strongest element of the story.

I liked it: only thing is, I feel no incentive to pick up a sequel. It was nice and self-contained and I don't find myself lingering over any of the characters and wanting more. So a strong B for me.

I hope you get a new copy soon. I got an arc (happy squee), which I am very fond of.

kmont said...

Ah! And ARC, you say. Lucky you! I would treasure that if I'd had it and would never ever in a million years have thoughtlessly laid it down where my dog could nab it.

I did get my other copy yesterday and so was able to get right back into it. Hoping to finish tonight.

Also--you asked what type of scifi it is and I must confess that I'm not quite sure--I guess I'm really not well-rounded enough of a scifi reader to take a gander at that one. I need to go do some research I suppose.

Meriam said...

Let me know what you thought of the ending: I was not quite convinced by it.