Review: Wanderlust, Ann Aguirre

Cover comment: I love these covers. I love that she’s hot, and tough, and armed, and actiony. And I love that Jax’s hair is the length it is in the book (or at least the last third of the book — for the rest it’s even shorter: think Natalie Portman in V for Vendetta).

Setting: Future, space, ships, planets.

Series: Yes, the first book was Grimspace, which I also read and reviewed hereDoubleblind and Killbox to follow. You can read a prequel about March, the hero, here.

Main characters: The heroine, Sirantha Jax, genetically gifted with the coveted ability to travel through grimspace; Her boyfriend, March, hard bitten Psi pilot with a dark side and a hero complex. Other members of the Scooby Gang include: Dina, the “bark is worse than her bite” butch lesbian, Vel, the intelligent, unflappable, buglike former bounty hunter turned friend and ally, and Jael, the gorgeous blond mercenary turned Jax’s bodyguard.

Plot: Wanderlust picks up where Grimspace left off. The fall of the Farwan Corporation has left a power vacuum, and the once anemic but now potentially powerful Conglomerate is eager to use Jax, whose image has abruptly gone from murderess fugitive to hero, for their political ends. This entails making her an Ambassador and sending her off to Vel’s planet, Ithiss-Tor, to establish diplomatic ties. Her journey there is eventful, including a stop at a way station where things are not quite right, a stop at Lothian, where they abruptly get embroiled in messy situation, and a detour under duress to Venice Minor to answer to the mysterious Mr. Jewel, leader of the criminal Syndicate.

My take in brief: A lot less romance (which made it a bit less enjoyable for me — no reflection on the book, just my personal tastes), but engaging new characters and an exciting plot that never stops make this a lot of fun.

Word on the Web: I’m awaiting a number of reviews. (Wait … can I possibly not be a million years behind on a review?) But here’s the scoop so far: Like Goldilocks, some reviewers like Wanderlust a little better than its predecessor, some a little less, and some find it equally good. But they all agree it’s porridge (the delicious kind), and they are anxiously awaiting Ms. Aguirre’s next batch.

From Romance Reviewers:

Loonigrrl, Dear Author, B (slightly less)

Gillian (guest review), Smart Bitches, B- (Gillian liked this one less, although there is no SB review of Grimspace)

Laura D., TGTBTU, B+ (lower grade, but it’s a different reviewer this time out)

AztecLady and Issek, joint guest review at Karen Knows Best, 8.75 (more) and 8.4 (not sure how this compares for Issek)

Katiebabs, Ramblings on Romance, 4.5 out of 5 (the rating is slightly lower, although she says she enjoyed it more)

KMont, Lurve a la Mode, 5 out of 5 (liked it more)

From Sci Fi reviewers:

Kimberly Dawn, Darque Reviews, positive (seems to prefer Wanderlust)

Fantasy Cafe, 8 out of 10 (slightly more)

From reviewers with no particular bent:

Literary Escapism, positive (same), 4.5 stars after 11 reviews (higher rating so far, but fewer reviews)

Discriminating Fangirl, A (same)

The Racy Romance Review:

In most ways, I thought this book was even better than Grimspace, which is saying a lot, considering how much I liked that one.  However, the focus is much more on Jax and her adventures, with her romance with March taking a back seat. They are, in fact, separated, either emotionally or physically, for most of the book. If Grimspace straddled the line between romance and SFF, this one is clearly in the latter camp.

Like Grimspace, Wanderlust starts at a dead run and picks up speed from there. I thought the plotting was even better in this one, although I wasn’t totally sucked in until around page 80. I was worried at the end of Grimspace that the good guys won too easily, but it becomes clear immediately in Wanderlust that Jax and co.’s defeat of the Corporation has created a very complex political and economic situation in which they will continue to play large, if unpredictable roles.

Aguirre’s worldbuilding is compelling and fully realized. Many have compared this series to the shortlived TV show Firefly, and while I didn’t watch that show, it reminds me of Star Wars. There’s a real skill in creating so many different species and planets who believably occupy the same world at the same time. The fact that the setting is futuristic is shown not just in technological advances (and even there, not just in the obvious places like transportation, communication, and weaponry, but also food, clothing, medicine, robotics, entertainment, you name it) but so many complimentary ways, like in glimpes of the events that brought the universe to where it is when the story unfolds, in wars fought and won or lost, in scientific endeavors attempted, and abandoned, in the trivial language — prayers to “Mary”, “fragging” (for “fucking” –thank you, thank you, Ms. Aguirre for giving me a swear word I can use in front of my children!), “credits” for money, and slang terms for most of the nonhuman species we meet.

Grimspace introduced us to Jax, whose betrayal at the hands of her employer, the Farwan Corporation, set her on a painful journey of personal growth, transforming her from egocentric party girl “nav-star” to a crucial member of a team on a mission of epic proportions, with a matching conscience. In Wanderlust, Jax has to deal with the consequences of actually caring about other people, both those with whom she is intimate, like March, and the faceless strangers whose lives her choices, she now realizes, can affect.

She’s still the brash, independent, deeply self-interested Jax, not subject to many of the gender norms with which women today struggle. She refuses to comfort men when they need it, she withholds sex from her partner without apology or explanation, she refuses to dress up, she’s honest to the point of cruelty, and childbirth — even after she witnesses one — strikes her as “painful, bloody, smelly, messy, and a whole lot of trouble.” In their one intimate scene, March actually utters these words: “Take me, Jax.” I cannot resist her, but it’s not my fault: this character is like catnip to a feminist theory professor.

But in Wanderlust, the wind has been taken out of the sails of the Jax I cheered for in Grimspace. She’s increasingly physically weak (an important subplot) and beset constantly not just by the fear of death most jumpers feel (they have short shelf lives — the next jump may be their last), and the paranoia which understandably became a key part of her worldview given what has happened to her, but a kind of constant internal hand-wringing monologue of doubt and uncertainty, which I have to admit got on my nerves at times. This is a darker book than Grimspace, emotionally, even though the body count (of nameable characters) is not as high.

And that darkness extends to Jax’s relationship with March, which was one of the wonders — for Jax and for the reader — of the last book. Here, they are never on the same page, and I had continuing trouble with his character. There’s a tension between Jax’s view of him as a hero, and her references to his dark side. Of course, heroes can have dark sides: many have mixed motives, not all of them pure. But, and maybe this is because the book is written in the first person, from Jax’s point of view, or maybe it’s because most of her thoughts of him are of this lightness/darkness variety, March remains, for me, an enigma.

We get more of the wonderful Vel in this book — and when’s the last time your favorite heroine got a best friend with an insect mandible and exoskeleton?  –although crewmate Dina remains underutilized.  A great new character is Jael, the mysterious Bred male who becomes (somehow, I am not really sure) Jax’s bodyguard. His genetic backstory is really intriguing to me: in most of the academic literature I read, genetic engineering is viewed as inevitable and mostly good. That Aguirre does something so different with it is very interesting. Jax’s relationship with Jael was so compelling that at times I kind of hoped March would never reappear.

There’s a twist at the end. I knew that there would be — it was telegraphed early on — but I had no idea exactly what it would amount to, and it was pretty surprising. I could say more about it, in relation to an earlier post of mine, but that will have to wait.

Published in: on September 29, 2008 at 7:37 am  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “childbirth — even after she witnesses one — strikes her as “painful, bloody, smelly, messy, and a whole lot of trouble.”

    Why do you say “even after she witnesses one”? I’d have thought that one would be even more inclined to take this view after one had witnessed it.

  2. Laura,

    I thought about that. I didn’t phrase it well.

    It’s true that witnessing the pain of childbirth is likely to make anyone notice the negatives! But in non-comedic fiction, I think there’s often a concomitant awe, a sense of the circle of life and all that, as well as a bonding with the child, which this character doesn’t experience.

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