BOOK REVIEW: Jinx Town (The Jinx Chronicles #1) - Sam Stone

On a routine school theatre trip in Manchester, teacher Jasmine Regis finds herself at the heart of an alien attack that spreads across Earth and soon finds humanity on the brink of collapse. The aliens, nicknamed by humans as the Jinx, have a simple but deadly motive; kidnap the women and kill any men that cross their path. Survivors quickly fall into a barbaric state of affairs and Jas, together with a pupil, Andrew, who she managed to save in the attack, find themselves attempting to survive in a world where normal rules no longer apply. Jas' secret to survival is a simple deception; she must pass as male to avoid detection from both the Jinx and the feral remains of human society.

The Jinx's modus operandi allows for some interesting explorations of gender and perception, particularly during an apocalypse that faces an extinction crisis. The women become valuable because they can breed, tapping into a long line of scientific and social anxieties that stretches back to the utopian fiction of the early 20th century. It is also, brilliantly, the women who take it upon themselves to do more, such as main character Jas' willingness to fight and learn more combat skills and Mallory, using her language skills as a translator. Gender is a fluid concept here, not defined by others' perceptions, but by the body's owner. It's a particularly astute exploration of bodily autonomy and one that makes Jinx Town something quite special.

The characters, although established swiftly, are well-wrought, with one misgynist character so perfectly realised that a shiver of disgust accompanies his every appearance. There's a sense of realism to these characters that make the morally upstanding ones sympathetically relatable whilst the human characters towards the villain end of the spectrum feel scarily real. Even the Jinx, who could so easily have become pantomime villains and caricatures carry a certain amount of sympathy. Their struggles have an inherently tragic quality that Sam Stone doesn't use to excuse their actions, but to explain them.

However, it is Stone's central character Jas that deserves the lion's share of the praise. Too often female characters in science fiction suffer from the full damsel-in-distress or are Trinity syndromed into a 'strong female character' that resembles no woman you've ever know. Jas is very definitely neither of those things, forced by her survival instincts into developing her strength through adversity. Crucially though, Stone ensures her humanity survives; she feels the weight of her decisions and actions, mourns for the world she's lost and is affectionate towards Andrew. She's not a badass automaton who just happens to be a woman. She's a woman who also happens to be a badass. It's both exciting and refreshing.

Stone's skilful blend of science fiction, horror and fantasy elements allows for her to build a coherent and horrifying world from which to launch her characters and the thematic work that acts as an undercurrent throughout the narrative. It rattles along at a swift pace, but it's to Stone's credit that it never feels rushed or too brief. Her own influences are clearly seen woven throughout Jinx Town in both explicit nods made by the characters, but also in certain visual descriptions or story developments. Sometimes, it feels that Stone should trust her genre audience a little more to pick up on these references without the detailed explanation that is sometimes offered. However, these influences are largely utilised effectively; Stone may be treading on familiar ground at times, but she mines it not only to say something about our contemporary society, but also age-old anxieties that humanity has not yet shed.

The horror of Jas' situation and the barbaric ways that humanity, or more accurately masculinity, lapses into provides not only a keen commentary on our own society's gender issues, but also taps into a very real sense of fear. A particularly grisly discovering in the Trafford Centre vividly lingers in the memory. Stone combines short, sharp shocks such as that one with a constant, lingering sense of dread maintained by an enemy that could appear any second and a society quickly losing its grip.

It's a doozy of an ending too and the longing for a sequel sets in as soon as you hit the final page. Stone is an exciting genre voice, infusing her fast-paced action with a thoughtfulness that can too often be forgotten.

Jinx Town (The Jinx Chronicles #1) is available from Telos Publishing:

- Becky

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