After reading a handful of sci-fi romance novels — not a lot, by any means, but I love them — Ann Aguirre’s Grimspace is one of my favorites for its flawed-diamond heroine, Sirantha Jax. It’s also packed with action, and I appreciate that the romance — and yes, that includes sex scenes — is only a small part of a much larger story.
Sirantha Jax is a jumper, which means she has a J-gene that allows her to jump spaceships through grimspace, which is sort of like hyperspace. The trouble is that jumping wears a person out, and they usually have to quit young if they don’t want to die young. This is something Jax is thinking about – but she has other problems, too.
At the start of the novel, she’s locked in a prison for killing everyone on board her previous ship, which crash landed. She has no memory of this and certainly doesn’t believe she did it; she’s being set up. When a man she doesn’t know, March, breaks into her cell and helps her escape, she joins his band of rebel travelers as their navigator.
What I love about Jax is her unique combination of maturity and snark. She’s 33 years old, which is older than a lot of other sci-fi heroines who come kicking ass straight out of high school (or the equivalent). She’s been in love – madly so, the kind of love that should last a lifetime – but she lost him in the crash. That kind of history gives her a wiser perspective on life than she might have had without it, yet she’s no aging flower. She’s sarcastic. She can be selfish and bitchy. She has a lot of bad days, and she doesn’t often apologize for them. I’m a huge fan of flawed characters, and Sirantha Jax is exactly that. It makes her feel real. To be honest, she reminds me a lot of Jack from Mass Effect, and I found myself picturing her looking like Jack in my mind. (I happen to love Jack, too.)
March is a less interesting character, in my opinion. But then, I have a problem with most male leads in romance novels, because let’s face it: They’re usually dark and brooding and extremely boring. March doesn’t give away much about himself, making him a typical close-mouthed hero with a nice ass. But it’s okay, because Jax is too smart and hurt to jump him on sight. She’s thoughtful, careful – and she has more important things on her mind than finding a man, especially after what she’s already been through with love. It’s an interesting set up to their romance.
Another thing I initially disliked was the mental link between Jax and March. He’s a psi, which allows him to read Jax’s thoughts and be the pilot to her navigator in grimspace. (That’s a position her husband once filled.) I’m never into mind-reading or other ideas with a fantasy feel in what could otherwise be awesome, hard sci-fi. It also seemed like a cheap way of forcing a connection between Jax and March from the beginning.
However, I grew to like it more as the novel progressed. Instead of being exploited as a way for March to parade into Jax’s mind, the mental link adds humor most of the time. When Jax is irritated with March and imagines a new way to kill him, he has to listen to it in her thoughts. You can imagine the looks the two of them must have exchanged.
What’s more interesting is that both characters make decisions that aren’t always morally sound. If there’s a moral gray zone, Aguirre takes Sirantha and March there, and it’s absolutely realistic. Sirantha also has a totally justified and totally disturbing obsession with her own death. (Remember how dangerous grimspace can be?) There are also character deaths that upset Sirantha – and they certainly upset me. What’s best is that after they happen, they feel heroic and inevitable and not at all like unnecessary plot devices. Aguirre has a magic touch in that respect.
In a lot of ways, Grimspace is about second chances. Both Sirantha and March have been through hell and heartbreak, and those are the reasons they are such soulmates — even though it’s a second stab at finding true love. Sirantha also has major survivor guilt over the death of her husband and former crew, which is something she has to get over to succeed now that she has a new chance of leading a productive life.
Grimspace is also a minor masterpiece of worldbuilding. The settings sound gorgeous and very much alive, and if you’re into action and tech, you can expect a lot of it. I’ve heard some people say that it’s easy to feel confused when jumping into this novel, because Aguirre writes almost as if she expects readers to already understand everything… but that’s exactly what I love about this book. It’s probably easier to take for sci-fi fans such as myself. The idea seems to be to skip the long histories and figure things out as we go, which is so much fun. Reading this book is an act of exploration.
On top of all this, Grimspace has fantastic side characters who come into play at different points in the story, such as a newborn alien that March has to chest feed and, later, a dead-pan alien shapeshifter named Velith who looks something like a huge praying mantis when he’s in his usual form. They are integral to the plot and to Sirantha’s character development. The more I look back on Grimspace, the more I see how almost nothing in the novel is random; Aguirre ensures that everything and everyone has a purpose in this slightly madhouse story.
To highlight the action, Aguirre writes the entire novel from Sirantha’s perspective, in the present tense. It feels as if everything is happening in real time, and you’re right there inside Sirantha’s head as it occurs. It may feel jarring to some people, but I actually write in present tense a lot myself (when I’m working on creative writing projects, that is), and I loved the intensity.
Although this is a romance novel with sex scenes, the relationship between Sirantha and March takes a backseat to the politics and sci-fi action — and even the sex scenes highlight more details about the characters. I love that. It’s also why I would recommend this book to anyone interested in exploring a new science fiction world with one of the most kickass characters I’ve encountered in a long time. Consider the sex scenes a bonus.