There's space. An empty blackness that spans between worlds. If ships were to travel straight space, they'd never make any progress at all. But this is hardly a concern because many generations ago, people discovered Grimspace. Grimspace is a plane of burning fire and psychedelic lightstorms, and traversing takes a jumper. Jumpers are the rare possessors of a genetic factor called "the J-gene" and many humans who have the J-gene join with the Farwan Corporation for training and eventual employment, all while they feed their addiction for the incomparable rush that surfing Grimspace provides.
But the convenience of fast travel and the incredible high comes with a steep price.
Jumpers die. Jumpers die quickly. The more jumps they make, the more their lifespans are cut down, and very few of them make it to their 30's.
Our story kicks off with Grimspace, where our heroine, Sirantha Jax, is being confined and "given therapy" because of a terrible accident that she may very well have been responsible for. Unfortunately, she can't remember the crash, so she can't say for certain. Just before real damage could be done to her already scarred psyche, a tall, rough man named March sneaks into the facility and breaks her out. As it turns out, he's part of an organization who needs her to found an academy that will break up Farwan's monopoly, a place where jumpers can be trained away from the corporation's eye. Seeing as how she has little choice, she agrees, and off the group starts to gather the materials they need for the quest, indirectly causing the downfall of the Farwan Corporation in the process.
With the second entry, Wanderlust, we find our crew dealing with the aftermath of Farwan's collapse, the galaxy left in disarray with a considerable power vacuum. Sirantha and crew are recuited by the head of the Conglomerate (the galaxy's official legislative/governmental body) to head a diplomatic mission to the planet of Ithiss-Tor, home to a race of mantid-like humanoids. The reasons behind this mission are discovered on the way to the planet, and the journey is fraught with no shortage of peril.
Doubleblind details the diplomatic mission on Ithiss-Tor itself, with Sirantha and her crew doing their best to adapt to the very alien culture of the planet. Meanwhile, Sirantha sorts things out with her lover, but neither of her chosen tasks are easy and both contain their share of unpleasant surprises. In short order (thanks to some experimental technology) Sirantha starts catching up with her role as diplomat, but an attempted murder with a human-only acid makes things look hopeless.
In Killbox the Conglomerate does its best to gird itself for war against the infamous arachnoid monsters called the Morgut. With a painful dearth of both ships and soldiers, though, the best the Conglomerate can do is recruit all the raiders, mercenaries, and pirates they can get their hands on. It's awkward but proves effective... at first.
In Aftermath Sirantha faces the legal consequences of what she had to do to win the Morgut War and helps to rebuild the Conglomerate's spacelanes. One by one she fulfills her promises and obligations so that she and March can be free to have a future of their own.
The final volume, Endgame, focuses on the last of Sirantha's obligations, the promise she made to Loras of the La'hengrin to free his people from slavery to humanity. But the faux-Roman Nicuans aren't eager to let La'heng go free, and Sirantha must go to war one last time.
Ann Aguirre's series definitely falls on the soft side of scifi, with the majority of the plot about conflict between political bodies of various sizes and the monsters (both literal and figurative) that they must dispatch along the way.
This series provides examples of
- Aborted Arc: Jael warns that because of his regenerative capabilities and general ruthlessness, it won't be long before he finds a way out of the mines and hunts Sirantha down. This is never followed up on in the series, and barely ever mentioned. However, he does show up in a Spin-Off series, the Dred Chronicles, set some considerable time after the original. His capabilities allowed him to live long enough that Sirantha might not even be around any more, but didn't ever help him escape and eventually, after being transferred somewhere else, he undergoes enough Character Development to change his mind about tracking her down anyway.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Inverted: AI is useful and makes life easier. Made even better with Sirantha's AI-driven PDA, Constance, who is very helpful.
- Bio-Augmentation: Wanderlust introduces us to the Bred, genetically engineered humans who are just better in every way than baselines. The trade-off? The human costs of the projects that made them were very, very high, and they produced vastly more failures than successes.
- Bounty Hunter: Velith.
- Broken Bird: Sirantha, oh so very much. The worst part? Some of her brokenness was brought about by design.
- Combat Pragmatist: Outrunning armored opponents by lapping a stationary vehicle, hitting people while they're down, using the jewels as a target area... Sirantha fights to win.
- Court-Martialed: In Sirantha Jax: Aftermath Jax faces a court-martial for changing the codes on the beacons that guide ships through grimspace, which, while it saved humanity by causing the Morgut invasion fleet intent on eating humanity to be lost in space, also caused at least 600 friendly deaths. She's acquitted, but accepts early retirement afterwards and gives her attorney orders to settle any wrongful death suits.
- Descriptively-Named Species: There's a very good reason the Morgut are called that. They eat people.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel: Via jumping through Grimspace.
- Hide Your Lesbians: sharply averted. Dina is a practicing lesbian who can "bring home a girl who's never looked twice at her own sex." None of Dina's exploits are shown "on-camera" but she mentions them via innuendo on a regular basis.
- Hired Guns: March, as well as his friends introduced in Wanderlust, are all former mercenaries.
- Hyperspace Is a Scary Place: Traveling through grimspace is multiple orders of magnitude faster than the earlier method "straight space",* but requires a "jumper", one who possesses the "J-gene", to guide the ship to beacons placed by the Makers near inhabitable stars. A ship that enters grimspace without a jumper trained to read the beacons will likely never emerge. Jumping is intensely addictive to jumpers, but like any good Fantastic Drug also slowly kills them, until they enter grimspace and their minds never come back out, at which point they're rendered clinically dead and typically Mercy Killed by their shipmates. It's called "navigator burnout syndrome".
Jax managed to last far longer than most other jumpers. We later learn that she isn't subject to NBS (grimspace eats the rest of her body instead of her brain, and she can heal if she rests enough between jumps), because of mutations induced by being conceived in grimspace because "my mother was a kinky freak". From her Doc develops a serum that, after his death in Afermath, she gives to pharmaceutical companies to develop a mass-effective cure. Also, the Mareq all have the J-gene and aren't vulnerable to NBS, and Jax predicts they'll eventually replace human jumpers.
- Invisible Monsters: The Teras, flying predators native to Lachion which have near-perfect camouflage that renders them invisible to human eyes.
- A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read: March the telepath knows the worst of everyone around him, and hardly bothers to hide his contempt for them. He knows when they lie either to others or to themselves. In fact, the main draw he feels towards Jax is that she doesn't lie and there's no disconnect between what she's thinking and what she's saying.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: The Morgut, so called because they're "more gut than anything else". They seem to find humans...delicious.
- Precursors: An ancient race which built the Star Roads and placed the Grimspace beacons.
- Psychic Powers: Psis (portrayed as users of telepathy) are a regularly occurrence in the setting, if encountered only occasionally. However, there is a Psi in Sirantha's group — March.
- Rubber-Forehead Aliens: Averted.
- The exception is Loras, who isn't human while being human-seeming and -acting... but he literally cannot bring himself to harm someone.
- Starfish Aliens: Many examples.
- The Ithtorians who are mantid-like, and they can't even be understood by humans unless they're wearing a vocalizer. What's more, one of their primary means of communication is a wa which is body-poetry expressed through an extremely nuanced kind of bow.
- The "Morgut," who are vaguely humanoid arachnids. The problem with them is that their hunger is never satisfied, and they find humans super-tasty.
- The Marakeq — frog people. They even hibernate during the winters after digging themselves into the mud.
- Subspace or Hyperspace: The Supspace variety, courtesy of the titular Grimspace.
- Taking You with Me: an epic rendition when Sirantha's mother sacrifices herself and her flagship to destroy the dreadnaught about to attack Venice Minor.
- Troubled, but Cute: March's time as a merc was very unfriendly to his psyche, to the point where a mentor had to rebuild his humanity brick by brick. Sirantha falls for him pretty hard, all while lampshading his brokenness.
- Gone to almost Tear Jerker levels with Wanderlust when March fights in the clan war for Gunnar-Dahlgren and breaks again in the process.
- Voluntary Shapeshifting: An interesting manipulation — the Ithtorians assume others' features by growing a new a skin. The new skin wears out (smelling a little ripe in the process) and must be molted and replaced. Not only does the skin provide a useful disguise, but it also provides armor of a soft, fleshy sort. To play with it even further, though, the Ithtorians mannerisms and speech patterns remain essentially unchanged, so to make a thoroughly convincing disguise, the Ithtorian must learn to alter how he acts. To add another zig to the zag, Velith is the only Ithtorian who uses it this way. All other Ithtorians find it dreadfully distasteful.
- Wrench Wench: Aguirre plays with this a bit. Dina wasn't always a Wrench Wench; she was once royalty, and she became a ship mechanic in the years after her fleeing from home. She even retains some political acumen from her political days, but she doesn't make use of it very often.