by Ann Aguirre

Cover image

Series: Sirantha Jax #1
Publisher: Ace
Copyright: March 2008
ISBN: 0-441-01599-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 312

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Sirantha Jax is a jumper: a person with the rare genetic ability to jump spaceships through the shortcut dimension of grimspace. It's a science fiction idea with a long pedigree because it creates a separate in-group for the characters to belong to, a society with its own rules, and sets up tension with the rest of the institutions of the world. In Aguirre's version, jumpers provide the transition but direction in grimspace is controlled by a pilot. The jumper and the pilot develop a deep psychic bond. Jax had been jumping with her husband piloting, but on their last trip their ship crashed, killing everyone on board except her.

As Grimspace opens, Jax is in a treatment facility that's much more like a prison. In theory, they're trying to figure out whether she's still able to (and safe to allow to) jump. In practice, something more sinister is going on, a fact that the reader senses early but only learns more about after Jax is helped to escape. Scarred, deeply depressed, and nearly suicidal, she's pulled into the subversive plans of a small ship of renegades who are trying to break open the Corp monopoly on grimspace travel and their tight hold over every jumper. But she's not sure whether she trusts them, or whether she cares enough about their crusade to truly join in.

Grimspace follows well-trod SF paths of special cadres of pilots and navigators, lawless corners of space with local warlords, and rebellion against smothering centralization, but its first-person protagonist and point of view have more in common with urban fantasy. It's written in first-person and, at times, nearly stream of consciousness from Jax's perspective, and Jax displays plenty of profanity, acidic commentary, and emotional angst. If her special ability were shapeshifting or magic instead of jumping spaceships, one could easily see her as the typical burned-out urban fantasy detective. I liked that. It's a fun point of view when it's written well, and it felt fresh when applied to a science fiction background instead of the more typical fantasy.

That said, Grimspace has a poor beginning. Jax isn't sure what's going on at first, or if she cares, and I thought that carried over to the reader's experience. The first section of the book is rough and jagged, with staccato bursts of character introduction, world-building that doesn't quite cohere, and an extended stop on a very odd outback planet that felt to me like a repurposed stage from a western. One early problem is that Jax and the reader are being intentionally kept in the dark about the real goal of this group; another is that none of the characters start off as likable. That includes Jax, who is a complete mess and who is both scared and despairing to the point of being almost nihilistic. The world-building unfortunately does not carry the reader through that part of the story, and at about eighty pages in I wasn't sure I was going to like this book.

It does, however, get much better. For one, Jax calms down and starts making emotional connections with the rest of the crew, and that lets her demonstrate skills as a fearless problem solver. For another, while the goal of the group of people she's fallen in with isn't exactly deep, it does make sense and it does slowly become a cause the reader (and Jax) can believe in. The frenetic pace of introduction and discovery also slows down, the cast stabilizes, and the surroundings get a bit less weird (and a bit more conventional for a science fiction novel). I didn't care for the alien baby subplot — I rarely do — but the rest of the story slowly pulled me in.

One thing Aguirre did well was surprise me. There are several points later in the book where Jax gets put in a fairly typical high-stress position and does something very atypical in reaction to it, twisting the story into a shape unlike what I had been expecting. That made Jax feel like a true free agent, establishing her independence and her desire to control her own life. That appealed to me. Aguirre also palms one card well, setting up an ending that I thought was the best set of scenes in the whole book, and that had me thoroughly engrossed. One can see the bones of the urban fantasy heroine inside Jax's character, but they're fresh and interesting in an SF world, and they work better than I would have expected.

There is a romance, in fitting with the urban fantasy inspiration, and it didn't quite work for me, but Aguirre also builds in a reason why it might not make sense and makes it spiky and fragile without being too cliched. By the end of the book, I was, if not entirely persuaded, at least willing to go along for the ride.

And that's the best summary of Grimspace, I think. Parts of it don't make a great deal of sense, and parts of it are quite choppy. But I liked Jax once she starts getting a handle on her trauma, the other characters grew on me, and the plot surprised me in some interesting ways. It's not the smoothest or most polished SF novel I've read, but it has a lot of energy and an unusual genre mix. I think I'll stick along for the ride.

Followed by Wanderlust.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-10-07

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