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Jenna Starborn
Sharon Shinn
Ace Books, 381 pages

Jenna Starborn
Sharon Shinn
Sharon Shinn's previous novels include The Shapechanger's Wife, Wrapt in Crystal, Heart of Gold, Summers at Castle Auburn and the Samaria Trilogy. She is a 1996 John W. Campbell Award nominee, and winner of the William Crawford Award for Achievement in Fantasy.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Heart Of Gold
SF Site Review: Summers at Castle Auburn
SF Site Review: The Alleluia Files
SF Site Review: The Alleluia Files
SF Site Review: Wrapt in Crystal
SF Site Review: Heart of Gold
Sharon Shinn Tribute Site
An Interview with Sharon Shinn
The Eyrie -- Sharon Shinn Tribute Site
On the Plain of Sharon -- Sharon Shinn Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Jane Eyre in space? I was skeptical too. But Sharon Shinn makes it work -- though her science fictional retelling of the Jane Eyre story belongs less to SF than to the small but persistent sub-genre of modern sequels, prequels, and adaptations of beloved classics (last time I checked, there were more than a dozen sequels to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice alone).

Jenna Starborn isn't born, but made, in the gen-tanks on the planet Baldus. But the woman who purchased her neglects and mistreats her, and at last she's removed from her abusive home and sent to a charity school, the Technical and Engineering Academy on the planet Lora. Here she follows her talent for science, and becomes a generator maintenance technician. For someone like Jenna, a half-citizen in a rigidly caste-conscious interplanetary society where a person's worth and prospects are defined by his or her grade of citizenship, a life of hard and honest work is the best she can hope for.

An opening for an experienced generator tech brings Jenna to the isolated mining planet of Fieldstar, whose poisonous atmosphere makes environmental force fields a necessity for life. Here, at lonely Thorrastone Manor, Jenna finds true acceptance and respect for the first time in her life -- as well as a growing attraction to the master of the Manor, enigmatic Everett Ravenbeck. Despite the difference in their social status -- Jenna a half-cit, Ravenbeck possessed of the highest grade of citizenship possible -- the attraction is mutual, and Jenna and Ravenbeck plan to marry. But even as they're about to pronounce their vows, an impediment is revealed: Ravenbeck already has a wife! Unable to accept the alternative of living with Ravenbeck as his mistress, Jenna flees to a far colony planet, where she finds unexpected comfort and kinship among half-cits like herself. But her love for Ravenbeck endures; and when, in a moment of extremity, she hears his voice calling impossibly across the gulfs of space, she must choose whether to remain in her new life, or throw everything aside and hasten back to him.

Shinn has ably re-contextualized the basic elements of Jane Eyre's setting: the class-defined social structure, Jenna's uncertain position within it, the charity school, the isolated manor-house. It does require some willing suspension of disbelief to accept Shinn's explanation of why a technologically-advanced interstellar culture should so closely echo the inflexible class structure and restrictive social mores of Victorian society; but if you can manage that, the correspondences work very well. Shinn succeeds in capturing the voice of the original Jane -- plucky, passionate, and never self-pitying; other characters are also well-drawn, especially Ameletta (Adele). Ravenbeck is somewhat less satisfactory, for though he possesses Edward Rochester's sardonic humor, he's not nearly as dark or compelling as that unforgettable romantic hero. Still, he makes a believable love interest for Jenna.

Shinn incorporates elements of her own into the plot, including some social commentary and a Goddess-centered religion that plays an important part in guiding Jenna's choices (and recalls the faith portrayed in an earlier Shinn novel, Wrapt in Crystal). Also, for reasons of internal consistency, Jenna can't be tutor to Ravenbeck's ward (though she quickly comes to occupy an analogous position); that post is held by one Janet Ayerson, who meets a nineteenth-century-style bad end -- a sort of alternate Jane, in a novel Brontė never wrote. But for the most part the storyline hews very close to the original, and part of the enjoyment is tracking how Shinn transposes familiar plot elements: Jenna's initial encounter with Ravenbeck (where a Vandeventer V convertible aircar stands in for the horse), the night-time attack by Ravenbeck's mad wife (instead of setting the bed on fire, she compromises the environmental force field), the mad wife herself (whose madness is caused by failed cybernetics, in Shinn's context as disgraceful a secret as mental illness in Brontė's). There's even a technological equivalent for Brontė's occasional direct addresses to the Reader.

Those who are familiar with Jane Eyre will best appreciate this graceful retelling, though Shinn's skillful storytelling and sympathetic characters should ensure enjoyment even by readers who haven't encountered the original.

Copyright © 2002 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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