Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Grimspace
April 27, 2008, 1200
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,
GrimspaceWritten as a guest reviewer at Enduring Romance for Kimber An. Go check out her lovely, lovely review blog!

I’m curious to know how the name Grimspace came about. While the title obviously comes from the name of the space humans with special J-genes “jump” into to traverse the universe, it fails to capture the joy and addictive ecstasy jumpers get from grimspace itself. Be aware that Ann Aguirre‘s debut science fiction novel pulls romance into the fore, though its romantic nature doesn’t displace any action. The romantic overtones aren’t a shock considering Aguirre has written romantic fiction in the past under a different name.

Grimspace is a change from the run of the mill space opera, though, in its tone and perspective. It uses first person present tense narration that brings a kick in the pants along with it, pushing the action into the forefront. It also puts the focus directly onto Sirantha Jax, who is a heroine with loads of attitude.

We first meet Jax right before she’s about to escape from a psych unit with the help of mysterious man March. With her lover and former co-pilot dead, Jax must now make a run for it and make the first jump she has made since that time with a pilot she has never met or bonded to. Soon we’re introduced to the ship’s crew, who want Jax to start a rogue training program for other jumpers so their rebel group can reduce the monopoly her former employers, the Farwan Corp., have on space transport. To do that, they have to find other people with the J-gene. Along the way, Jax must deal with herself, her relationship with her telepathic co-pilot March, save a sentient baby lizard, escape a pirate space-station breeding programme, and dodge an extremely polite shape-shifting bounty hunter.

For a novel like this to succeed, it really requires a likable main character, and Sirantha Jax is that. She’s strong, and someone who acts with loyalty and caring despite herself. And she’s the longest living jumper out there, which speaks to her stubborn nature. I didn’t believe the psychosis that the character kept proclaiming (read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar or even Sarah Monette’s Mélusine if you want crazy done convincingly) and wondered if this was a symptom of Jax’s lack of self-knowledge. Her relationship with March overlaps with her grief from losing her last love, and their relationship grows with each argumentative exchange, fraught with physical attraction and their need for each other. Aguirre’s use of Jax’s voice is almost mesmerizing at times, and is what makes the novel speed forward so quickly.

And I’m aware of his hands on the controls as I never have been. I could almost fly the ship if I had to, because we’re not him and me, we’re…we, and then I sense his astonishment, sharing my mind’s eye as we gaze outward to grimspace.
Maybe I gave him some sense of it before, but this time, he sees completely and I know he does: the glory, the colors, and the almost-manifest monsters that writhe along the hull. The Folly ploughs through liquid fire; the world without is a conflagration of possibility, ideas and dreams barely conceived and waiting to be given form.
But March and yes, it’s the March-me spinning my mind’s eye away from the beacon. He’s doing it and I didn’t even know this was possible. He’s trying to show me—
Shit. There’s a ship coming up fast behind us (p. 148).

Grimspace was clearly designed as a “non-stop thrill ride” of action and romance, and Aguirre accomplishes that goal very well. Its rapid plot turnover helped make my nit-picky science-oriented self back off from the book’s logical inconsistencies. Most notably, a swamp planet that had planet-wide seasonal change and an ice planet with an unsustainable ecosystem without humans–who were not native to it (and seem to willingly live there despite creatures that go crazy at the scent of ANY human blood). Though there is speculation here, it’s more of the social type than the hard-science type, so don’t wrack your brain too hard.

The speed of plot elements hit a wall in the last third of the novel: the story moved too fast, and pulled too much in at once while eliminating some characters in not-so-meaningful ways. The media broadcast moment at the end struck me as too simple a solution, and something that Farwan conceded to far too easily. I have to say that the last couple of paragraphs just smacked me in the face with a corniness that seemed out of character for the novel as a whole and really disappointed me.

That said, the book takes an interesting spin on feminine-masculine power relationships, both in relationships between characters and in the societies that Jax and her fellow crew visit. “Mother Mary” is the expletive of choice, which ties into the reproductive politics explored, and the idea of exploiting women for their reproductive power. Though religion remains a mostly unexplored depth for Sirantha, she dips in her toe. It seemed to me as though later volumes have the potential to go somewhere very interesting with themes of genetic and reproductive politics entering the fray, especially if religion is bound into it all.

Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace is the kind of book that you can kick back with and enjoy the ride, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. It’s got enough humour and action to preoccupy you for a few enjoyable evenings, and its sequel, Wanderlust, is due to hit shelves in August 2008, with two more books in the series currently contracted. I’m looking forward to them.

Aguirre, Ann. Grimspace. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 326 pages. $7.99 (Canadian), paperback.

See also: selected reviews by Grasping for the Wind, Fantasy Café, Dear Author, and FantasyBookSpot.

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The Outback Stars
April 26, 2008, 2344
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

The Outback StarsThe Outback Stars has some of the most beautiful cover art I have seen for a long time on a science fiction book. However, while good artwork sells books, good story sells them better, and that’s something Sandra McDonald understands. In fact, she wrote a solid enough debut novel that it warranted a nomination for the Compton Crook award. She also understands what she’s doing with her book: the tag-line she uses is “Love. Duty. Really big spaceships.” Which is probably a decent summation of some of the big ticket items in the book, if a very brief one.

Made up of military science fiction and space opera genre-wise, The Outback Stars is the story of Lieutenant Jodenny Scott and Sergeant Terry Myell. There’s a lot going on in this book, but if you expect space battles you won’t find them here. Jodenny has won a medal of honour for her conduct on her last ship, which ended in a fiery blaze. She escapes from her recovery period by forcing her posting on the Aral Sea as a supply officer. She gets the dubious honour of “reforming” Underway Stores, where what she doesn’t know can hurt her. With possible smugglers on board, she must deal with surviving her last ship and navigate alien transportation systems not designed for human use.

While the novel begins slowly, the pace builds with numerous subplots juggled together, scaffolding effectively into higher tension. McDonald excels in looking at the valour found in the everyday military actions during peacetime, and the ship politics that result from it. The ordinary becomes oddly fascinating, mostly because the writing makes it that way. Word choice is deft, and character portrayal is both consistent and complex. Jodenny is no cardboard cutout, and she certainly isn’t perfect.

For Jodenny and Terry, space is not the final frontier. Maybe it’s love in this particular book, or possibly the mysterious and alien Wondjina technology. Either way you slice it, the mixture of larger themes balanced with details of prose and story work well together. Terry’s intermittent gecko, Koo, was probably one of my favourite characters in the book. The details of supporting characters made for a nuanced balance, especially when Jodenny deals with some of the malcontents in her division in, er, creative ways. The interactions between characters are where McDonald shines; sometimes the unspoken is more important than what was actually said:

“What are you thinking?” he asked.
She was thinking there was no such thing as easy sex, no matter what people said. Not on a spaceship and not when the person was someone you worked with.
“I’m thinking this is just what the doctor ordered,” she lied.
Rokutan eased her back and began unbuttoning her blouse. “Is that all I am to you? A prescription?”
Jodenny touched his jaw. “A panacea.”
“A substitute for the real thing?”
“That’s a placebo,” she said (p. 250).

The mixture of alien and Aboriginal culture in The Outback Stars is fascinating, and a welcome change from the norm. Tying these two themes together bridges into the colonial nature of space, and I’m interested to see where this part of the story goes in future volumes. While this volume focuses mainly on interpersonal politics, my hope is McDonald’s next installment, The Stars Down Under, will take a broader political view and add depth to Jodenny’s world. More back story would satisfy my curiosity of how Australia became a major player in space, but it was also nice not to have the requisite info-dump when it really wasn’t required to understand the story.

One of the few weaknesses I noted was a lack of description of surroundings: it was difficult to know whether I was imagining what the author had in mind visually. Much of the Underway Stores department used specific equipment (the DNGO retrieval units were a particular highlight though I was waiting for a baby-eating joke that never came), but I wasn’t really sure what they looked like mentally. Sometimes I found myself getting distracted from the story because it was frustrating trying to situate things, and I was a little uncertain of the ship’s actual structure.

However, these are minor complaints, and overall The Outback Stars worked for me as a reader on a very basic level. These are characters who are everyday people dealing with their lives and their careers in ways that make sense to them, and the grounded nature of the story pulls the speculative into a reality that is all too rare in science fiction. I’m definitely looking forward to more from Sandra McDonald, and getting my hands on The Stars Down Under.

McDonald, Sandra. The Outback Stars. New York: Tor Books, 2007. 376 pages. $9.99 (Canadian), paperback.

See also: Fantasy Debut’s coverage, plus Tia’s interview with Sandra McDonald, and Sci-Fi Weekly’s review.