Jane, Unlimited, a new YA novel from Graceling author Kristin Cashore, opens with the following: a young orphan girl named Jane who finds herself in reduced circumstances; a discontented heiress; and a giant and mysterious manor house full of secrets.
If you’re a fan of gothic great house books, you know there are only a few directions for Jane, Unlimited to go in. There’s the Jane Eyre direction, where the heroine wins the love of the saturnine master of the house, only to be briefly foiled by his still-living ex-wife. There’s the Rebecca direction, where the heroine wins the love of the saturnine master of the house, only to be briefly foiled by his dead ex-wife. Or, if you really want to stretch, there’s the Northanger Abbey direction, where the whole story turns out to be the product of the heroine’s over-active imagination.
But Jane, Unlimited romps joyously over all of these expectations. Why pick one road, it demands, when you could pick all of them? Having spent its first 84 pages providing Jane with a plethora of potential mysteries to investigate, the narrative pivots on a single moment of decision and then spins out from there into several parallel timelines, unraveling what might ensue from every choice she makes.
One decision leads Jane into a spy thriller. Another takes her into a gothic horror story. Another into a space opera. There are more.
What remains constant through each possible narrative is sensible, undaunted Jane, who is determined to make sense of the world she’s faced with, even when she is paralyzed by grief. Magnolia, the aunt who raised Jane, has just died, and the idea of a world without her makes no sense to Jane. So all of the parallel timelines in which Jane finds herself, no matter how heightened their tone or architecture, are equally inexplicable to Jane in their Aunt-Magnolia-less-ness.
Jane’s chief coping mechanism for dealing with her grief is to design and build umbrellas: not ordinary umbrellas whose function is solely to keep the rain out, but beautiful little collapsible sculptures that double as artworks and character development (and which also keep out the rain). Each timeline pushes Jane to make a different umbrella — one that represents Aunt Magnolia’s eyes in the spy thriller, and a deceptively simple plain black umbrella in the space opera. As a character choice, it runs the risk of feeling just a little too precious as first, but as the different timelines unfold, Jane’s umbrellas and the ways in which they interact with the rain pick up unexpected resonances that make you catch your breath in delight: Of course, you think. That’s how it all fits together.
Throughout the book, Cashore’s prose is smooth and elegant, given to producing evocative images and then handing them to the reader with a sort of understated shrug: Oh, did you like this one? I just happened to have it lying around. In a library where the books are shelved by color, “blues and greens and golds” sweep Jane “gently across the room;” in space, “tiny, bright spaceships zip now and then, twinkling like silver and gold fireflies” around “a single point of light, tiny, but so bright that it’s painful to look at.”
Between the understated richness of the prose and the playfulness of the narrative structure, Jane, Unlimited reminds me of nothing so much as the works of the grande dame of YA fantasy, Diana Wynne Jones. There are few words of higher praise within the genre.