Jenna Starborn

Review: Jenna Starborn, by Sharon Shinn

Publisher: Ace
Copyright: April 2002
ISBN: 0-441-01029-6
Pages: 369

I must admit to an embarassing flaw in my classical education and experience as a reader, one that makes it difficult to write a useful review of this book. I've never read Jane Eyre.

See, Jenna Starborn is a retelling of Jane Eyre in a science fiction setting, and by retelling, I don't mean that it takes the same basic story and explores it from a different viewpoint or with different sensibilities. I mean that the plot is a nearly exact copy of the plot of Jane Eyre from beginning to end, most of the characters are renamed but otherwise identical, the culture has been tweaked to be very similar to that of the mid-1800s, and the issues the book raises are pretty much exactly the same. If you have read and remember Jane Eyre, very little here will surprise you.

Therein lies my dilemma. I found Jenna Starborn to be a charming, easily readable romance novel. I liked the title character a great deal, I enjoyed the romantic banter, and the writing was engrossing and well-paced. I just have no idea whether there's any point in reading this book rather than just reading Jane Eyre, or whether I would find Jane Eyre even better. Certainly, this is a painless way to learn the story, better than Cliff Notes any day, but if you're better read than I, you may toss it aside in disgust as an inferior version of an old favorite. At some point, I'll have to read the original and find out.

What I can say is that this isn't really a science fiction story, even if I'd have to classify it there and I'm sure it would be shelved there. The conceit is a telling of Jane Eyre in a far-future world, with various appropriate substitutions of skills, political situations, and personal backgrounds, but the science fiction setting stays firmly out of the way and has been heavily tweaked so that the story doesn't have to change. Future politics have been carefully rigged to produce concerns and sensibilities remarkably close to Victorian England. The title character is a generator technician rather than a governess, but she falls into a remarkably similar position in the household. There are other substitutions in the area of religion, location, and method of insanity, but the background never loses its feeling of being artificially designed around these characters who aren't naturally central to it. This is, in some ways, a feature, since Shinn is clearly having fun working out how to justify the story and the reader can play along.

This is, therefore, a romance novel with some gothic overtones given an SFnal coat of paint. If you know that going in and that's the sort of book you're looking for, I think it's a pretty good one. It has much of the appeal of a Regency romance, most notably a abundance of banter, while featuring a considerable reduction in the parade of clothing descriptions, fewer mind-numbing titles, and a world that, as an SF reader, feels more familiar and predictable than the Regency period. All in all, an enjoyable bit of fluff.

If you've read Jane Eyre, remember it well, and read this book, I'm curious what you think of it. If, like me, you haven't, I'm not sure whether to tell you to go read the original or recommend this book, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. There may only be a few of us who like an occasional witty romance but would rather that all the old English trappings be replaced with a stock SF setting, but for however many of us there are, this is a book targetted directly at us.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Posted: 2005-03-05 22:04 — Why no comments?

I have read both Jane Eyre and Jenna Starborn, and you're correct, I did feel that Jenna Starborn was just a pale imitation of the original. I really enjoy reading Sharon Shinn, but I was tremendously disappointed by this because the original had a far greater emotional impact due to a more meaty characterization of Jane and Mr. Rochester. I would definitely suggest you read Jane Eyre someday, because there is less of the "parade of clothing descriptions" and "mind-numbing titles" than many would expect, and is a much more substantial and satisfying novel than Jenna Starborn could be.

Posted by Kendra at 2005-03-06 11:10

Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books, so I read Jenna Starborn on your recommendation. I enjoyed Jenna Starborn - Shinn makes a good attempt at recreating the voice of the original, and as you say her shifting it to an SF setting is clever. But in the end it mainly left me with a craving for the real article, because Jane Eyre is muchmuchmuchmuch better written, assuming you like 19th century fiction at all. This isn't a slam against Jenna Starborn, which is well written (I can't read books that aren't well written). It's just that Jane Eyre is really in another league entirely.

Posted by Stef at 2005-03-26 22:44

This is good to know. I think I need to get a copy of the original and read it at some point. Added to my want list (when that will translate into reading it, I don't know, given the backlog).

Posted by eagle at 2005-03-26 23:08

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