Why did I pick this book up? It certainly wasn’t because of the cover. I may be shallow when it comes to a book’s fashion sense, but really, if the story interests me, I don’t care. So this ugly specimen entered my hallowed halls of reading because the SF Squeecast made me. These guys truly deserve their Hugo and I love their podcast to bits. Such good recommendations!
by Sharon Shinn
Published by: Penguin US, 2002
ebook: 384 pages
My rating: 6,5/10
First sentence: You would think that if someone commissioned your conception, paid for your gestation, and claimed you immediately after your harvesting, she would love you with her whole heart; but you would be wrong.
Jenna Starborn was created out of frozen embryonic tissue, a child unloved and unwanted. Yet she has grown up with a singularly sharp mind—and a heart that warms to those she sees as less fortunate than herself. This novel takes us into Jenna Starborn’s life, to a planet called Fieldstar, and to a property called Thorrastone—whose enigmatic lord will test the strength of that tender and compassionate heart.
Any retelling of Jane Eyre is walking the plank by default. Charlotte Bronte’s original story is not only universally beloved but also one of my very favorite books ever. I have read it many times, listened to it on audiobook, watched pretty much all the movie and TV adaptations (The BBC’s version from 2006 is the best), and generally never seem to tire of the tale. Setting the story in a science fiction universe, with interstellar travel a routine, every house equipped with a PhysiChamber to fix any diseases its residents may have, and people being grown in gen-tanks, there is still (or again) a huge gap between the classes. Not every resident of the galaxy is automatically a citizen, and citizenship comes in different levels.
So… a science fiction retelling of Jane Eyre, huh? Having just finished this book, let me say that while I enjoyed reading it very much, I am also left a bit underwhelmed. Sharon Shinn stays very close to the original and we almost get a scene-by-scene retelling, simply set on the planet Fieldstar. However, since Thorrastone Park – this alternate Thornfield Hall – is built “inspired by” old English estate manors, the setting doesn’t really have much impact on the story. Jenna works as a technician, taking care that the force field that creates a breathable atmosphere, doesn’t break down. She still spends a lot of time with Mr. Ravenbeck’s ward, Ameletta, and even teaches her a thing or two about nuclear reactors. However, apart from traveling in hovercars instead of carriages, there really wasn’t much to set this story apart from the original.
Maybe I am being unfair. If I had read this without knowing (and loving) Jane Eyre, I probably would have adored this book. But knowing the original, and knowing it quite well, I couldn’t help but compare. On every single page. I found myself waiting for certain scenes to happen, wondering how Sharon Shinn would translate them into a universe with space travel, women working “manly” jobs, wearing men’s clothes, etc. In the end, while I found the romance believable and I really enjoyed what the author did with the games Ravenbeck and his guests play, it didn’t really work for me.
The characters, at least, are true to themselves. They are clearly recognisable as their 19th century counterparts and I cared deeply for Jenna and Ravenbeck. The one new character that is introduced feels, while equally likable, a little misplaced. What this book did for me was show just how perfect Jane Eyre is. Not only is it a gripping story of love and class division, but it is also beautifully constructed. Every puzzle piece sits in its place and if you change one thing, you’d really have to change all the others to make it work. I believe that’s why Shinn was so careful, didn’t really change anything.
Apart from one long ride on a space ship, the science fiction element fell short for me as well. I haven’t read a lot of hard sci-fi (I can’t remember any, at least) but I really would have enjoyed more descriptions of Jenna’s work as a technician. Give me all the details about the gadgets and cables she has to take care of.
In conclusion, this was a book worth reading and it showed that the author knows her craft. She evoked emotions in me, made me care about the characters, and even made Jenna tell her story to us, her “reeders”.
THE GOOD: Come on, it’s Jane Eyre!
THE BAD: Not enough science fiction, really just an almost exact retelling with no new twists.
THE VERDICT: A good book retelling one of the most beautiful stories ever. Just not what I was expecting or hoping for.
MY RATING: 6,5/10 Quite good