Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore is a mix between a standalone novel and a collection of short stories, which Cashore describes as something resembling a choose-your-own-adventure story. It follows the title character, Jane, as she follows her late Aunt Magnolia’s advice to go to Tu Reviens, a mysterious grand house on its own island, if ever she gets the chance. The book is split into six sections: Tu Reviens, which introduces the characters and the situation, and five short stories, each in their own genres, and which each follow Jane as she makes a particular choice. The stories are, however, designed to be read in the order, as they do have a plot arc between them.
I picked up Jane, Unlimited because Cashore is one of my favourite authors: I loved all of her previous books, Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue, which are all standalone but related fantasy novels. So I knew that, even though it’s completely different, I would love Jane, Unlimited too.
Since all five stories take place within the same space of time, with some of the same things happening in the background, I was a little worried that the stories would get repetitive. But with such a variety of stories, I shouldn’t have worried.
The first story, The Missing Masterpiece, is a crime story about art theft, and is my least favourite of the five. The second, Lies Without Borders, is an exciting spy story with a subtle but endearing hint of romance; it’s probably my favourite. The third, In Which Someone Lose A Soul And Charlotte Finds One, is a surreal horror story, and it’s at this point that the book begins to take a turn towards the weird and the wonderful. The fourth story, Jane, Unlimited, is a scifi about parallel universes which is the other contender for my favourite story. The fifth and final one, The Strayhound, The Girl and The Painting, is a fantasy about worlds within paintings and dogs with telepathy.
Each individual story is a pleasure to read, but they also combine to form a cohesive whole. Following the point at which the stories diverge, they are completely separate from each other – what happens in one does not affect anything in any of the others, as if it never happened – and yet Cashore still manages to weave an overarching thread throughout them that brings the same satisfaction at the plot as with any conventional novel.
Characters and their development have always been Cashore’s strong suit, and they’re one of the main factors that made her previous books my favourites. Thankfully, she delivers just as well in this book.
I found Jane – a quirky but awkward umbrella-maker with no idea what she’s going to do with her life, to be particularly relatable – as well as very likable. Cashore’s writing style – another of her strong suits, which also did not disappoint – really succeeded at conveying Jane’s voice, which obviously helped the reader get to know her and connect to her a lot. I really enjoyed reading from Jane’s point of view and watching how she grew in different ways throughout the stories. It was also fascinating to see how her relationship with house staff member Ivy develops in various circumstances.
Every character has their own distinctive personality, from strict Mrs Vanders to grumpy Kirin and boisterous Ravi. Plus, it’s really nice to see such a diverse cast, with a range of different races and sexualities.
Expectations vs Reality
Having read several reviews and plenty of Cashore’s blog posts about the writing of this book before I read it myself, I obviously had a few expectations. For one thing, when I heard that this book was about a mysterious house, I envisaged a particular atmosphere which I didn’t quite get. I was expecting an enchanting setting, perhaps with dark undertones, and a slow, quiet tone, full of secrets just out of reach. I was wanting something perhaps Brontë-esque, something in the vein of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.
But to me, the house didn’t seem to have much personality or feeling; there was only a small amount of wonder to it, and it felt a little disjointed. Jane’s attempts at investigation are a little bumbling (though this is perhaps inkeeping with her character) and the mysteries are solved quite quickly, often with Jane being told the answers or parts of the answers rather than her finding them out on her own. This is likely a result of the length of the short stories and the fact that each mystery was addressed within its own story; if they’d had a full novel to develop, they might have felt less rushed and had chance to be solved in a more satisfying way. However, this was only a minor disappointment, and barely impacted my enjoyment of the book as a whole.
I was also warned by a number of reviews that this book got weird. As a result, I was expecting a seriously mind-blowing amount of weird. For the most part, though, it’s the normal amount of weird that you’d expect with stories about alternate realities and worlds within paintings. The third story is likely the weirdest, mostly because there was no prior hint that there is anything magical or surreal going on, and because so much of what happens is left unexplained.
So should you read Jane, Unlimited?
Personally, I would say yes, you should. It’s a well-written, enjoyable book, and it’s something a bit different to what you’d usually read. Plus, with five different genres covered, the phrase “there’s something for everyone” is especially relevant here.
And if that hasn’t persuaded you, just look how shiny the cover is!