Since Jenna is a fairly straightforward retelling of Jane Eyre (with Jenna being Jane, Mr. Ravensbeck being Mr. Rochester, etc), I'm assuming in this review that you have already read Jane Eyre and am dishing out SPOILERS with wild abandon.
IF YOU HAVEN'T READ JANE EYRE, STOP READING THIS and for the love of God, go read it. Best book ever. You'll love it.
If you have read Jane Eyre, then nothing in this book will surprise you, plot-wise – it parallels the Jane Eyre story very closely.
Jenna takes place in the far future. Jenna is one of many babies who are grown in gen-tanks. In Jenna's case, she was commissioned by her “Aunt” Rentley, but when Aunt Rentley conceives a baby boy on her own, all of the Aunt's attentions go to the boy. Aunt Rentley allows Jenna to be raised in her home but she subjects the girl to so much abuse and neglect that eventually social services removes Jenna from her Aunt's custody and sends her to engineering school. When Jenna graduates and wishes for a change of scene, she applies for a job managing the technology at Thorrastone Park, on the remote outpost of Fieldstar, where she meets the enigmatic and alluring Mr. Ravenbeck.
There are a lot things that the author does supremely well. One is the building of a society that is plausibly futuristic, yet sufficiently stratified in terms of class that Jenna can exist within roughly the same limits as the original Jane Eyre. The author, Sharon Shinn, clearly put a lot of effort into figuring out how this society would work, and she incorporates financial divisions as well as those originating from technology – people from gen-tanks occupy a certain class, and cyborgs another, with only traditionally born humans being eligible for the higher classes. The exposition that explains all this is obvious but not labored or boring. The author does a great job of mirroring the restrictive atmosphere of Victorian England without simply copying it.
The author also does well in areas where the original Jane Eyre is sketchy. The story of the mad wife ('Beatrice') is absolutely horrifying and puts both the wife and Mr. Ravensbeck in a deeply sympathetic light. The relationship between Jenna and her aunt is done well, and Jenna's ability to forgive her aunt is easier to understand in this version thanks to some beautiful narration, even though in this version the aunt is far crueler to Jenna then she is to Jane in the original Jane Eyre.
Anther thing I liked is that the author deals with the social and business implications for Jenna of becoming Ravenbeck's wife. In the original Jane Eyre, Rochester is always painted as a recluse and it's sort of understood that Jane won't have to be in society. But even in the original novel that's not actually accurate – Rochester is in society a great deal, and not just because he is looking for a wife but because he has business to do and relationships to maintain. It's true that he leaves the country for long periods of time, but when in Thornfield he is in business meetings and legal meetings and obviously does actual work to maintain his estate. The original book manages to duck the social implications that marriage would have for Jane, but in Jenna, this is tackled head on, and Ravensbeck explains to her that as his wife she will have to learn to understand his business affairs, and she must be able to represent him in society. Additionally, her engagement to him immediately sets her apart from the other servants, a distance that she very much regrets. As the housekeeper puts it,
“You are used to the company of servants and cooks and workers from all walks of life, and those are the people you like…Now those people will be beneath your notice – or only noticeable when you have an order that to give them, or a report to hear. They will not be your friends. You will have to draw friends from the ranks of the Ingersolls or the Taffs and the Fulsomes – and I do not know that you will find them much to your taste”.
My only significant problem with Jenna is that the character of Jenna, while admirable, never seemed real to me. She had no faults or layers. While Jane Eyre grows as a person throughout the course of Jane Eyre, Jenna started off as a confident person and stayed that way. I never sensed in her the fiery nature or the restlessness that Jane Eyre demonstrates. Likewise, Mr. Ravensbeck seemed like a character type, not a person. He never made me feel very angry, or turned on, or sad. He never made me laugh. I didn't care that much about the romance between Jenna and Mr. Ravensbeck.
This is pure nitpicking, but I also disliked the use of 'Janet Ayerson', the governess, as a cautionary device. Janet makes some decisions that prove disastrous for her, and we are supposed to be able to see from those decisions why Jenna should not run away with Mr. Ravensbeck. I could see why, faced with a modern, as opposed to Victorian, audience, the author struggled with making a case for Jenna's refusal. But we already have a 'Jane' stand-in in the form of Jenna and we don't really need two. Nor did I like seeing a beloved character be used as a cautionary tale. I may be taking myself way too seriously here, but I felt like it was disrespectful to the character of Jane Eyre to have one of her literary copies behave so out of character.
I would say that Jenna is a huge triumph as a book that makes me think, but not so much as a book that makes me feel. The world building is remarkable. Many scenes are written unforgettably well – Jenna's disastrous awaking from space hibernation, her starving in her aunt's house while a party goes on in the rooms beneath hers, her teasing Mr. Ravensbeck when they are reunited – this book is full of well-written stuff. Perhaps other readers made a more emotional connection to Jenna than I did – I admired her, but she was so consistently plucky that I wanted her to have more layers. I'm giving the book a B+ instead of an A purely because I never did get swept off my feet.