Book Review

Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn


Title: Jenna Starborn
Author: Sharon Shinn
Publication Info: Ace 2002
ISBN: 9780441010295
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy

Book Jenna Starborn Jenna Starborn is an inventive science fiction take on the Jane Eyre story.  This book is well worth reading for the creative concept even though the romance never quite gels.

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.

This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | iBooks | All Romance eBooks.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Lee says:

    Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books and I had no idea that Sharon Shinn did a futuristic re-telling of it.  I have to check this one out!

  2. 2

    Jenna Starborn is great! I re-read my copy not terribly long ago, when I was on a Jane Eyre binge of my own.

    And Sharon Shinn in general is an SF/F author highly accessible to romance readers, I feel. I could recommend any one of her novels without reservation, though my favorites to date are the Samaria series and what I’ve read so far of her fantasy series, the Twelve Houses books.

    Her standalones like Jenna Starborn though are also not to be missed. In addition to that, I recommend Heart of Gold, Wrapt in Crystal, and Summers at Castle Auburn.

  3. 3

    I’m a huge fan of Sharon Shinn, both her YA and adult novels. While I enjoyed Jenna Starborn (esp. Jane talking to her “Reeder”), it wasn’t my favorite of her novels classified as YA. General Winston’s Daughter and Summers at Castle Auburn are more likely to get a re-reading from me, but Starborn is one most Jane Eyre fans will enjoy for the novelty of it.

  4. 4
    Lorraine says:

    I have enjoyed all of Sharon Shinn’s novels.  I purchased a copy of Jenna Starborn when it came out, not knowing anything about it and I never read the jacket copy.  It was a Shinn novel and I knew that I would like it. 

    It took me a short time to realize that it was a retelling of Jane Eyre and I enjoyed it as a well-written Science Fiction story and as a story I know and love.  I was amazed at how Shinn could transfer all of the 19th century norms and gothic quality into a book set so far into the future.

    I have shared this book with many friends who love Jane Eyre and are willing to try something different.

  5. 5

    This was my first introduction to Sharon Shinn. I love her work and I adored this retelling. I always tell this story; everyone who has read the Jane Eyre knows there is the one line that sums up the book: “Reader, I married him.”

    I admit I peeked ahead to see how Shinn does it, and even remembering it makes me smile in appreciation.

  6. 6
    hapax says:

    I love Sharon Shinn, but JENNA STARBORN fell pretty flat for me.

    Part of it is that the characters seemed soll very very cardboard, puppets pulled on strings to march through all the JANE EYRE plot markers.  The re-telling is so literal that it at points it is almost laughable.

    The other part is that the religious component is central to JANE EYRE; even if the reader doesn’t share the same faith as Jane and her creator, the story takes it absolutely seriously and respectfully and doesn’t make sense without it.  In contrast, I found the PanEquism religion adopted by Jenna to be more of a plot-construct than a sincere and organically developed possible belief system.

    But JENNA STARBORN does contain some beautiful prose passages, and isn’t the worst introduction to Shinn’s better work.


  7. 7
    Mary says:

    I have a deep fear of retellings-they never match up to the original story. For that reason, although I love both Jane Eyre and Sharon Shinn, I think I’m going to pass up on this one.

  8. 8
    Laskiblue says:

    I found this to be a really fun take on Jane Eyre by one of my absolute favorite authors, though I admit to being annoyed by the Janet Ayerson subplot as well.  I highly recommend the Twelve Houses and Samaria series by Sharon Shinn—they are some of my most frequent read-agains.

  9. 9
    GenghisMom says:

    $18.99?! For an ebook?! HAHAHAHAHahahahahaaaaa!
    Good gravy, I’ll have to pass unless it goes on sale.

  10. 10
    CarrieS says:

    @GenghisMom – I got mine from the library – try that if you are interested.  Not sure if you’re library has it as an ebook loan – mine was paper.

  11. 11

    Oh geez, I hadn’t even realized that the ebook was that expensive. What the HELL? The book’s been out for ages, and in mass market paperback to boot. (That’s the copy I’ve got, bought long before I ever laid hands on an ereader.)

  12. 12
    GenghisMom says:

    I’ll keep my eye out at my local used shop. Seems perfect for that.

    @CarrieS I’m a nightmare library patron. The worst. I should be banned. I owe them like $40 right now.

  13. 13
    Belle says:

    @GenghisMom I nearly spit water all over my laptop when I looked up the book and saw the Canadian Kobo price is $20.99!! The paperback would be cheaper!

  14. 14
    GenghisMom says:

    Yeah. I don’t even pay that for hardcovers.

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