When Jane, Unlimited was announced, I waited for it as eagerly as we now wait for Winterkeep. At least according to my shelf history on Goodreads, I was held in suspense for almost a year before I was able to get my hands on it and start reading. I remember my disappointment well enough; it was good, it was okay, but the new format did it few favors and I found myself disheartened.
I think it was out of loyalty to Cashore that I initially rated it four stars. It can’t have been worth more than three, even on the initial read-through. But it’s been three years; I wondered to myself if maybe I just didn’t get it the first time around, if it needed a second attempt.
Initially, this post was going to be about reacquainting myself with the book, doing a last reread of published Cashore novels before Winterkeep’s release(!!). This is probably the lowest-rated book I’ve ever done a reread for. If it makes a difference, I didn’t think to check the Goodreads rating until after the reread. So I changed my mind. Instead, we’re going to try to determine the exact nature of the novel’s problems and participate in an admittedly one-sided workshop of the plot.
Kristin Cashore, I’m so terribly sorry.
Warning: spoilers abound.
Creative Liberty and Manuscript Changes
Jane, Unlimited is not told like your average story. The book is broken into six different parts: the set-up, and five separate paths the titular Jane could’ve taken. There is a lot going on at Tu Reviens, the mansion in which the story takes place. There is an art heist, missing children, a supposedly dead Aunt, a house with a human soul, and a portal to multiple dimensions. Overall, I do think the rather disjointed points of conflict could have been seamlessly tied together, but as we’ll discuss below, there are several reasons why it did not.
Before we can really delve into it, however, it would be remiss not to mention Cashore’s initial formatting of the plot. Originally, the book was written as a choose-your-own-adventure novel. I am not well versed in CYOAs, but from what I understand, readers have multiple points of choice that will affect the ending, which allows for various elements to influence the plot. Jane, Unlimited was really only given one point of choice, and each choice corresponds to one of the above points of conflict. As a result, Jane, Unlimited feels rather limited instead.
It’s impossible to dunk on the editor or agent responsible for suggesting this change. I know Bitterblue had been edited the same way, rewritten to pare down on the unnecessary plot threads. Since we obviously don’t have access to that initial draft of Jane, Unlimited, I can’t say whether the edits made the story better or worse. But I do want to say that, ultimately, the author knows what’s best for the book, and part of me feels like Cashore’s initial instincts might’ve been better for the story’s success.
The Main Grievances
I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those movie trailer edits on YouTube where someone takes an existing movie trailer but chooses new music, new elements to focus on, sometimes even new filters to make the movie’s genre into something completely different. That is what Jane, Unlimited read like. You have a mystery, a spy thriller, a horror story, a multiverse sci-fi, and a multi-world fantasy. Each part backtracks to the place where Jane is presented with who to follow at the end of the first part.
Disjointed Flows of Information
Each of the five choices Jane makes allows her to work out one of the five mysteries plaguing Tu Reviens. In the first part, she follows Mrs. Vanders in the hopes of revealing information about her aunt, which leads to her getting directly involved with the mystery of a swapped Vermeer painting that explains some of the caginess of Lucy and Colin. Most frustrating is that the Vermeer ends up being hidden behind an Aunt Magnolia photo, and in the first part, Jane finds it there. In future parts, because she’s not involved directly with the Vermeer plot, we as a reader know what Lucy and Colin are doing and what terrible people they are. We know, in each of the subsequent plots why the Aunt Magnolia photo was “framed incorrectly,” but there is nothing to do with the information besides watch helplessly as events unfold off-screen because Jane is too busy with another plot.
There are a few tidbits of information that play a role on previous and future parts. Even before the Charlotte part, Jane gets an ear-ache every time she’s mentioned. Jasper is constantly trying to trip up Jane right next to the magic painting discovered in the Strayhound part. In the Spies Without Borders part, Ivy and Patrick are both involved in keeping some kids safe from bad people, and some quick thinking on Kiran’s part prevents them from being found out. But in the Charlotte part, because of decisions Jane made, Kiran is still in the ballroom, and Ivy and Patrick are killed, and it’s sad but it’s nothing more than a passing mention.
The main problem with the information is that, perhaps for simplicity’s sake, Cashore has tried her best to keep each decision isolated. It would be too complicated, or perhaps too repetitive, but some of it stretches suspension of disbelief. The five-tined fork branches off with the question of which of five persons should Jane chase after in that moment. In many instances, the information Jane learns during that conversation is information she could have learned in a later conversation with that person, allowing the plots to intertwine at some point, and it’s their lack of cohesion that really hurts the story.
Incongruent Magic Systems
A further point of this lack of cohesion comes simply from the book’s lack of identity as a genre. There are three “magic” acts or events in the story. In the Charlotte part, it is revealed that a human can (and did) give their soul to a hurting, mismatched house. In the multi-verse part, there is a portal upstairs that allows people to pass through to other dimensions to see their alternate selves, and Jane visits one where there is no earth or House Tu Reviens, but rather a spaceship with Charlotte at its soul and pirates trying to steal paintings. In the Strayhound part, there is a painting that Jane falls through, where she finds her supposedly dead aunt and a completely new world.
I have read a few books where completely different magic systems were put side-by-side (and we’ll call the sci-fi multiverse a magic system just for the sake of simplicity) to great effect. Three Dark Crowns, with its poisoners, elementals, and naturalists is one such example. What made the magic systems work is that it took all of them into consideration at any given time. Even when spending time with the poisoners, it was clear that elementals and naturalists were a part of that world.
For Jane, Unlimited, not so. Not to the extent that it needed to be, at any rate. It’s not so much that these different magics are not hinted at throughout the entire book; rather, it’s that even when we’re directly interacting with magic revealed in a previous part, there’s no sense of unity. Charlotte doesn’t feel like she belongs as part of the spaceship in the multi-verse part because it’s not really clear if all magic is found in all multiverses. Is Jane’s aunt likewise hiding in a painting aboard the weird spaceship? Is the Charlotte and painting magic actually undefined science or is the multiverse portal just fancy magic? The rules and connectivity between the three different magical events are never even hinted at, causing further discord.
Order of Narration
Ultimately, though, I think that the book’s biggest singular flaw is the order in which the parts are put into place. The different parts read almost like six different short stories, but when compiling short stories, it’s not a matter of just throwing them in at any random order. There must be some thought put into it. Which one comes first, and which one serves as a resolution, will influence how the reader will feel about the work as a whole.
I do believe there is a certain organization to the different parts. The stories seem to get wilder and wilder as they progress. Cashore started us on normal and started dumping in the weird once she was certain we hadn’t gotten scared off. It does seem natural, too, to end the book with the discovery of Aunt Magnolia. But I do believe the rest of the stories could use a bit of a shuffle.
Patching Up Jane, Unlimited
It should come as no surprise, then, that the first order of business is to determine which order of parts might have improve the story overall.
My first suggestion may come as a shock, but in my revised list, I have “Jane, Unlimited” as the first part (Well, second). But, most importantly, it’s not the “Jane, Unlimited” featured in the book. The concept of the multiverse is one that is considered throughout, if in brief snippets of philosophy. Because it holds the same name as the title, and indeed, even considering just the synopsis, it would make sense to showcase at the offset of the story. Set the experiment, if you will.
The actual Mrs. Thrash sent Jane into a completely wonky multiverse to prove its existence, something different enough that it would be obvious she was in a completely different world. I think that this muddied the waters of the philosophical questions that Cashore seemed to want to pose. Instead, what might be interesting is if Jane fell through the portal by accident. Not just one, but four. Five, if you want to keep at least a brief entrance of the weird spaceship universe. But each of the four universes would be similar to the universe she resides in, and offers snippets, just snippets of information that will be vague but vital to scenes in later parts. With any luck, these particular edits may also shine some light on the strange magics of Tu Reviens, both about the mysterious Charlotte and the portal painting.
The next three parts could be a little more interchangeable, especially since I’m going to keep them mostly as they are. Considering the flow of information, the tones of the pieces, and also just choosing to put a little more emphasis on a particular relationship, I decided to leave Lies Without Borders and In Which Someone Loses a Soul and Charlotte Finds One as parts three and four. Charlotte’s part includes a passing mention of boats, special agents, and missing children, all of which come to light in the Lies Without Borders. Jane and Ivy kind of like each other from the get-go, but Ivy’s secret double life causes some tension that is mostly resolved by the end of the spy part. It’s touching, in a very sad sense, that one of Jane’s last thoughts are of Ivy in Charlotte’s part. (I would cut the last two paragraphs of part four so that it doesn’t end on Charlotte’s note, but on Ivy’s and Jane’s.)
After all this time, we finally backtrack to the place where Jane chooses instead to seek out Mrs. Vanders, and thus the mystery of the Vermeer enfolds (The Missing Masterpiece). The “bad framing” job of Aunt Magnolia’s photograph would finally be uncovered, an intriguing mystery rather than an annoying bit of useless information. We finally learn that Kiran’s boyfriend is a sleezeball, and all that tension between the two of them will not feel for naught when she breaks things off. Ivy and Jane end off with Ivy having things to tell Jane, and that we know what those things are doesn’t matter. She’s telling Jane of her own accord.
Lastly, we’ll have the Strayhound, the Girl, and the Painting remain as the final part. I’d like to see some explanations about Aunt Magnolia’s plans for the future–I can’t imagine she’s actually going to stay in the world of Zorsted, and Jane can’t exactly disappear in there with Ivy either. It’s hiding, putting a band-aid on things, which is not the type of person Magnolia has been presented as. I’m not even entirely sure that Aunt Magnolia needs to be alive for this to have a happy ending, but if the magic was set up well enough, I could see it being turned into something less… random. Either way, I think it’s nice to end the “progression” of Jane’s and Ivy’s relationship with Jane having something to tell Ivy, since it’s only ever been the other way around. This kind of puts them on equal footing, brings the story full circle, etc.
Of course, I do think the story’s problems aren’t just related to the order of narratives, but it does seem to be the crux of the issue. Let me know if you agree.
BONUS CONTENT! Graceling Covers and FOUR DAYS Until Winterkeep Launch
I never thought getting the new covers would be an adventure, but it’s just been that kind of year, hasn’t it?
Christmas presented (get it? I made a pun) me with a barnes & noble gift card, courtesy of my amazing mother. Now, as you’re probably fully aware, I have no problem finding new books to spend money on. I, like many of us, have been waiting for the announcement that the new covers were ready to purchase and had checked intermittently to see if b&n or even local book stores had them ready for pre-order. No such luck. Until, Christmas night, my gift card made me think to check again. BAM. Listed on their site. Oh, the thrill.
I don’t know if they ran out of stock and thought one cover is the same as the other, but Fire came in with the old cover. I know I bought the new one. The lovely lady at B&N even confirmed it for me. I mean, normally I don’t care. The story inside is the same. If my covers don’t match, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. But I already have the old covers for all the books, courtesy of my sister (another Christmas gift, from several years ago). Anyway, I wound up just having to return it and wait another tortuous WEEK for the new cover to arrive, thanks to a local bookstore. AND NOW. I HAVE THE WHOLE SET.
All the maps and artwork are the same. I was kind of hoping the new editions would have a little bit more, just for funsies, you know? But there is some extra content in the backs of each. Even a snippet of Winterkeep! They look just as good in person as they did online, and the Graceling cover is quickly growing on me. Now I just need Winterkeep to complete the set.