An ambitious work of YA speculative fiction—a post-apocalyptic premise fused with the plot of a beloved classic.
I’d like to open my review with some necessary context: I love science fiction as a genre, and Jane Eyre happens to be one of my favorite books of all time. So, when I happened upon a book with proclaiming itself to be “Jane Eyre… IN SPACE,” I leaped at the chance to read it. At the same time, I had to approach it understanding this was an incredibly tall order to fill.
This retelling story is told in first-person past-tense, entirely from the perspective of 17-year-old Stella Ainsley. Stella is an orphan who splits her time between teaching young impoverished children, and functioning as a slightly above-par engineer—helping prolong the life of the decrepit spaceship she’s been forced to call home. (Although, she prefers the former career to the later.) When her search for a new life turns up an offer from a plush private vessel, she seizes the opportunity—unaware of The Rochester’s unsettling turnover rate…
Overall, I have to give the author credit. Not only was there an adaptive attempt to remain true to the brooding tone of the classic and its characters, there was at least some effort to stay within the realm of the scientifically plausible and away from the sci-fi-fantasy detour so many YAs seem to take.
What I Liked:
Stella is a likeable enough character; strong without being aggressive, and pragmatic without being dull. At times overly preoccupied with the visual appeal of males at some points. (Close to Jane Eyre in function rather than in maturity/personality.) Her motivations for wanting to leave her impoverished, dying home ship (the Stalwart) are completely believable—given the added kick of being romantically rejected by her best friend.
The chemistry between Hugo and Stella was a gradual build, mercifully lacking in insta-love. Their banter is enjoyable, and her habit of “saving” him while clinging to her own principles feels in keeping with the original spirit of the classic. Hugo is also his own character, but if one squints and imagines Bronte’s Mr. Rochester about 18 years younger, the moodiness vs. brilliance parallels do a convincing job.
The worldbuilding was sufficiently justified, and fairly unique in its conception. Apocalyptic Ice Age via super-volcano is something I’d yet to come across in a sci-fi realm largely dominated by manmade mass-extinction tropes. (It’s nice to occasionally be reminded that Earth is perfectly capable of eradicating mankind without our help.) The social stratification of the various orbital refugee ships was also viable, while also a sort of nod toward acknowledging the classism of England during Jane Eyre’s historical time period.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
-Some of the word choices/sayings felt too modern-day for a people group who have been in orbit of the Earth for 200+ years. The only newish word I noticed throughout the entire book was ‘Frex/Frexing’ (and yes, it is the explicative substitute you think it is.) On page 163 a character uses the term "jet lag", but after 200 years, I strongly suspect it would have logically mutated into "rocket lag” or some such that wouldn’t knock readers out of the futuristic believability. And the title “Governess” has such historical connotations, it felt oddly clunky in a sci-fi setting. (As did the general Victorian era throwback direction the culture had apparently taken, though I’m sure the aesthetic will greatly appeal to some readers.)
-Hugo’s status of 19-year-old ship’s captain was hard to buy—particularly since readers aren’t privileged with seeing him do much of anything by way of captaining. He’s the technical owner of the ship and has been since he was 14. He gives his people orders and presides over awkwardly pretentious dinner parties. But it’s clearly Officer Xiao who actually runs things and knows what’s what with the ship itself.
-Characterization (outside of Stella and Hugo) was a bit bland. You never really get to know the crew of the Rochester—or the transport pilot—outside of base impressions of their gender, ethnicity, and (in the case of Orion, Xiao, and pilot Sergei) implied sexual proclivities.
-The ship’s Artificial Intelligence, Rori, seemed inconsistent—as if it existed when convenient to the plot but was frequently forgotten about. Initially I really liked the A.I. and its apparent evolved quirks, so it was disappointing to see it go by the wayside for much of the story. It was perhaps too much to hope that she might add some extra eerie gothic notes to the plot.
-While the prose is serviceable, it doesn’t hold a candle to the evocative beauty of Bronte. (i.e. Sadly, I didn’t come across any quoteables I was tempted to re-read or write down.)
While diehard fans of Jane Eyre may not quite find satisfaction, I would still recommend this book for those who haven’t experienced the classic novel. Younger readers may even be inspired to give the classic a go if they first connect with this retelling.