First off, a few warnings.
- Ann Aguirre has given me money. Not to review this book, but to make a promotional bookmark. Grimspace had been on my Must Read list for quite a while, and I was so eager to read it that I asked Ann to include an ARC as part of my payment. That’s me. I Will Work for Good Reads.
- The lovely cover of Grimspace may appear innocuous, but don’t be fooled. It is made of flypaper. Pick it up, and it will be glued to your hand until you turn the last page. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
- I’ve tried to write my thoughts on Grimspace without going off on a tangent about the Romance genre, what it is, where it’s going, and what it should be. I tried, really, but this addictive, fast-paced picaresque sci-fi action-adventure novel is also a damned good romance novel. And for me, it highlights things I want from Romance, but don’t often get.
The episodic plot of Grimspace follows interstellar navigator Sirantha Jax as she is broken out of prison by a rag-tag band of mercenaries out to end the Farwan Corporation’s monopoly on interstellar travel by setting up their own navigator academy, with Jax as the instructor. The group travels from place to place, usually leaving destruction in their wake. But as the book progresses, the action-packed journey through space becomes secondary to Jax’s emotional journey from the crash that killed her lover–a crash for which she has been blamed and imprisoned, and for which she blames herself–through grief, peace, and into love with her new pilot, March. March and Jax are both broken people in the process of putting themselves back together after tragic events and misspent lives. The touching thing about their story is that they know each other’s faults and strengths, and fall in love not despite this knowledge, but because of it.
Jax is a complicated, twisty pragmatist. She’s not lovable, noble or sweet, but she’s real in a way that makes her story compelling, and the ending emotionally satisfying. We see the action from inside her head in first-person present tense. You may think you have problems reading first-person present tense, but Aguirre’s novel will convince you that you don’t. The narrative style is much like Jax herself–tough, unflinching, immediate, and marbled through with lovely threads of imagery and phrasing that linger in your mind after you’ve turned the page, after you’ve closed the cover.
Possessor of the mysterious and rare “J” gene, Jax facilitates interstellar travel by guiding ships through grimspace with the help of a pilot. During the trip through grimspace, the pilot and navigator are mentally linked, bound up in each other’s heads, privy to the other’s private thoughts. When I closed the cover on Grimspace, I felt like Jax was tangled up in my thoughts, too. Great characters stay with you like that, and right now, Jax is sharing space in a corner of my brain with some of my other favorite first-person narrators like Hammett’s nameless Continental Op, Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, Baird’s Cass, Banbury’s Jill, and Carey’s Phedre. (They all hate each other, of course, but pass the time playing poker while they wait for me to reread their books.)
Maybe I’m just a sucker for flawed heroes and heroines, but characters like Jax and March are something I’d like to see more of in the romance genre. People do not have to be perfect to fall in love. Heroines do not have to be selfless martyrs to be worthy of love, heroes don’t have to save the day every time to be macho or attractive.
But for all my talk of romance, Grimspace, still works as a straight-up sci-fi genre novel. Aguirre’s imagined universe is a diverse, vast, violent, wide-open wild west of a setting, corrupt, confusing, and stuffed with possibilities. Good genre novels are often praised as “transcending genre” which is a backhanded complement if ever I’ve heard one. Grimspace doesn’t transcend the genre, it expands it. It fucks with gender stereotypes, and genre expectations, providing both the kick-ass action adventure you’d expect from a traditional action sci-fi tale, and emotional introspection, and a newfangled type of romance.
With its flawed, fascinating protagonist, its science fiction setting, and its blend of action, adventure and romance, Grimspace is not for strict genre traditionalists, for readers who like perfect heroes, or for the faint of heart*. It’s not perfect, but I thought it was one hell of a read–engrossing, entertaining, exciting. Aguirre has written a sequel, and I’m already brainstorming ways to get my grubby mitts on an advance copy.
*edited to clarify who “everyone” might be.