Jenna Starborn
Grade : B-

In reading retellings of beloved classics, you kind of have to go in knowing how much you can take. For me and Jane Eyre, it’s simple: I don’t like the book. Parts of the plot draw me back every time – governess, tortured hero, etc. – but it’s just not my favourite story in the world. This means I don’t approach retellings with the same emotional investment as I would with, say, Pride and Prejudice retellings. And by and large, I’m not picky. 

Sharon Shinn, the author of some truly awesome fantasies, transplants Victorian England to the planet of Baldus. Jenna is a child of the gen-tanks, commissioned by a woman who thought she would remain childless, but who birthed a child after Jenna’s harvesting. For much of her early life with Aunt Rentley Jenna is severely neglected and abused, until the social workers take her away and send her to school. Jenna thrives there, and her interest in science eventually results in her training as a technician. After graduation and several years of teaching at her old school, she gets a job on an off-planet estate as a generator technician.

As a harvested human, Jenna is not even a full citizen, and to higher castes she remains only a step above cyborgs, socially speaking. Yet she is treated well at Thorrastone Park, and feels accepted. There is a timid but kind seneschal, Mrs. Farraday; the engaging but neglected young girl named Amaletta; her governess, Janet Ayerson; and the estate’s master, Everett Ravenbeck. Everett is a level five citizen, rich and prosperous, and yet despite the class differences he constantly finds Jenna, delighting in her conversation and company. The inevitable happens – they fall in love and make plans to marry – but then Everett’s past throws a huge spanner in the works.

Unless you’re part of the 0.1% who doesn’t know the plot of Jane Eyre, you know exactly what happens next, and it’s both an advantage and a problem that Ms. Shinn sticks so closely to the original story. And I mean, super close. Not only are the names very similar, but so are the characters. The plot barely deviates. Oh, there are small differences, but aside from the setting there is no mistaking this story for anything but Charlotte Bronte’s original tale. A reader, especially one attached to Jane Eyre, could justifiably ask what the point was in writing a book that so closely follows the original.

However, since I’m not attached to it, the similarities don’t bother me. What does bother me is inherent to the story, which I find to be melodramatic and over the top, and that doesn’t change here. But in transplanting the action to a sci-fi world, with a new take on religion, technology, society, and caste, Ms. Shinn somewhat tones down all these aspects. On an imaginary, far-off world, I don’t have to fit everything within a frame of historical reality, I just read a sci-fi tale where someone can lose a year of their life in cryogenic freeze. If that can happen, then I’ll accept anything.

The same goes with characters and prose. Jenna and Everett do a lot of semi-formal, flowery emoting, which works in context. If someone read Jenna Starborn with no prior knowledge of Jane Eyre, they might say that Jenna is smart and practical, but strangely confident in some ways despite her upbringing. However, if you have read Jane Eyre, then there are very few surprises here.

The fact that my review of Jenna Starborn is as much a reaction to Jane Eyre is the book’s single greatest fault. I can’t talk about the former without talking about the latter, or at the very least, there are too few differences to make much of them. However, the biggest change is also the best one, and the science fiction setting makes a huge difference to the story’s context.

I reread the book occasionally and always enjoy it. Jenna Starborn is by far the least imaginative thing that I’ve read from Sharon Shinn – but then again, I suppose that’s the point. And it works for me.

Reviewed by Enya Young

Grade: B-

Sensuality: Kisses

Review Date : November 5, 2011

Publication Date: 2002

Review Tags: cross-class lovers

Recent Comments …

Enya Young

I live in Seattle, Washington and work as a legal assistant. I remember learning to read (comic strips) at a young age and nowadays try to read about 5-6 books a week. I love to travel, especially to Europe, and enjoy exploring smaller towns off the tourist track though London is my favorite city in the world.
Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments