Ann Aguirre
2008, Science Fiction Romance
Ace, $7.99, 312 pages, Amazon ASIN 0441015999

Grade: D
Sensuality: Warm

Note: This review may contain slight spoilers to explain the grade

After reading a number of glowing online reviews of Grimspace by Ann Aguirre, I got curious. I love SF romances and space opera, and this sounded like an interesting novel. Things started off compelling enough, but I lost all interest in the characters’ fate after the first third and grew to despise the hero during the second. After that, finishing the book became an uphill struggle that took three long weeks.

The one strength the book displays throughout is atmosphere and world-building; it is set in a dark universe controlled by the all-powerful Farwan Corporation, with intriguing renegade planets on the outer reaches. Ann Aguirre has a gift for creating mood and atmosphere, and the first-person narration in the present tense works to advantage here, giving the narrative a sense of immediacy.

Owing to a genetic defect, Sirantha Jax is a navigator. In her universe this makes her highly prized; only her kind can navigate a ship through grimspace and make quick space travel possible. For that reason, all navigators are employed and trained by the Corp and serve on their ships. While jumping grimspace, the navigator must enter a mental connection with the ship’s pilot, which is highly intimate - and often leads to a sexual relationship.

As the novel begins, Jax is stuck in an isolation cell in a medical facility. Some days earlier her ship crashed, killing Jax’s lover and pilot Kai as well as a number of passengers, including an important diplomat. Jax is the only survivor and has lost her memory. The treatment she receives is harsh and torture-like, so when a man – March – appears, switches off her droid guard and offers her a way out of the facility, she accepts after only the shortest of hesitations. They get to his ship, she joins the stranger’s mind to navigate grimspace, and they land on a hostile planet at the edge of the known world. On arriving they meet the instigators of this rescue mission and board a vehicle to get to their compound. On the way there they are attacked by a hostile neighbor, and because no-one tells Jax anything, she inadvertently provokes an even more dangerous attack by some kind of flying dinosaurs. When they reach the compound, eight people have died but – how fortunate – all the remaining crew have survived.

To break the Corp’s monopoly on fast space travel, Jax’s rescuers plan to start a breeding program for navigators. They want Jax, in part, in order to learn what makes her tick; she has survived this hard and dangerous work longer than most without deadly burnout. Also, with her ability she can direct their ships to the planets where they plan to collect "material" for the breeding program – planning to take whole villages and make them disappear in thin air (think Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke Island – and don’t even begin to consider the ethics of such a course, because they are not addressed here). But when they arrive on the planet, the discover the population seems to have already disappeared, and to make matters worse, there is a traitor. As a result, their ship has been sabatoged and they are being hunted by the Corp.

The novel has a very episodic feel to it – the characters arrive at one place, get into trouble, get out again, and almost seem to forget what they left behind. In addition, their actions are often short-sighted and callow. They remember their mission only when it is convenient, happily moving off-course when the whim takes them, and several people die to bring these plans, which might make a real difference, into fruition. The body count is high indeed, and too many characters die for the sake of expediency. While the main characters ruminate some about how bad they feel about the loss of life, it feels phony, as they never really question how much their own actions contributed to the death toll, and show no signs that they will act with more forethought in the future.

But the real killer for me were the main characters and their relationship. March starts off as standard hero material: big, dark, gruff, domineering. A while later, you understand he is actually very sensitive, being a natural telepath and all. A little while after that, it becomes clear that he is soft as marshmallow at his core, and that’s where the trouble begins. March used to be a mercenary who tortured others with his psychic abilities, but he is reformed now, so to atone he feels called upon whenever someone is in need. Remember the Regency miss who jumps out of the hero’s carriage to save mongrel dogs and chimney sweeper’s boys? That’s March. This might actually have lead to an amusing reversal of roles with a stronger heroine, and in a far less hostile universe. In this very grim world, however, March’s stubbornly impulsive heroic actions endanger the crew and lead to more loss of life. The bumbling hero works in Farscape, but probably only because at the beginning, John Crichton does not have any agenda - other than staying alive and getting home - that he might neglect. But March heads a conspiracy that will take years achieve its aims, so his impulsive humanitarianism is not endearing like John Crichton’s, but reveals him as dangerously incompetent. Amazingly, both Jax and one other character are aware of this, but they follow where he leads anyway. Given March’s continuous bungling, from page 200 on I knew a HEA could only be achieved with the intervention of a deus ex machina.

Jax is also not very helpful here. Presented as tough and gritty, she is also very naïve, because she has spent the last years in the ivory tower of Corp navigation, and she slowly becomes aware she knows nothing of the real world. So far, so good. Another aspect I liked was that Kai, Jax’s dead lover, is presented as a truly nice guy, and she mourns him. Her new relationship with March is far more problematical. She is intelligent enough to see through the idiocy of some of his actions, and even attempts to leave him at some stage, but in the end she fatalistically accepts that they are mates and that it’s her fate to follow him into death. And she never tells him off; instead she glorifies him as heroic and considers him a better person than herself. In addition, she embraces the idea that she is jinxed since her crash and blames all their misadventures, each of which can clearly be traced to March’s impulsiveness and/or sloppy planning, to her own bad luck. There are relationships out there in the real world in which the woman glosses over the man’s defects and internally blames herself, but they are not romantic.

Oh, and the last straw was that when the deus ex machina turns up, he is easily the most likable and interesting, not to mention efficient, character in the whole story. I just wished the book had been about him. So Grimspace is one book I definitely cannot recommend. With episodic plotting, dead bodies left and right, and a relationship that belongs properly at the beginning of a women’s fiction novel (before the heroine manages to escape), it’s painful to read. So don’t.

-- Rike Horstmann

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