Jane, Unlimited, by Kristin Cashore
It is rare when I read a book that the author anticipates and answers my concerns before I have the chance to rant about them in a review. When I began reading this book, I thought that it was painfully limited, and that the author was being somewhat cliched in viewing the chance to vacation at a wealthy home or even join some sort of international espionage agency as being unlimited, for both wealth and institutional loyalty to secret organizations are deeply limiting in the ways that they influence the behavior of others. But as the book went on, it became increasingly obvious that there were multiple layers of reality going on, and by the time that the book made it clear that the Tu Reviens (“you return”) mansion was both a sentient house as well as a portal between a large amount of different dimensions, it was clear that this book was viewing Jane’s possibilities as truly limitless in a wide variety of ways. Likewise, when I started reading this book I thought it would make a good choose your own adventure type of book, and then in reading it I found that the author had in fact first written it as that kind of book before changing her mind. Well played.
Coming in at about 450 pages or so, this book is one that starts slow and ends up being intensely complicated. We see this particular book through the point of view of Jane, an orphan who was raised by her aunt Magnolia, who is not the brightest crayon in the box but likes making artistic umbrellas, which everyone in the book thinks are fantastic and worth thousands of dollars apiece, largely because they are wealthy tools who have too much disposable income. Almost immediately, Jane finds herself harassed by a psycho dog (who is later revealed to be a special type of strayhound who has to find the person he is bound to, and Jane happens to be it, coincidentally enough) and involved in a complex plot involving servants who are spies, and wealthy people who are only obsessed with their own personal drama, and a woman who is called a witch but happens to be someone involved in portals across a complex multiverse. Jane finds herself deeply drawn to Ivy, a woman looking to escape the world of espionage but unsure of where she can go afterwards, and finds that some of the decisions she makes are truly intensely disastrous for herself and others, while also wrestling with the feeling of betrayal that her aunt had lied to her about her secret life all these years while bringing her up.
Although this is a vastly better novel than I initially thought it was, and though I greatly appreciate that the author seemed to anticipate the concerns I had about it and answered many of them through the course of the book, which is one reason why one does not write a review before finishing it, there are still some serious flaws with the book. For one, and this is the big one, the author has a common misconception that concerns about morality and propriety are “limited” and that those who are sufficiently creative and artistic should move beyond those to simply follow their own heart. One of the portals in the house (!) is a painting that only opens to those who are sufficiently artistic, and so Aunt Magnolia, Jane, the dog, and Ivy of course are able to enter it. Of course. The author shows a love of unconventionality for the sake of unconventionality, using the concept of the multiverse as a way of speaking against personal responsibility and moral probity, and giving inflationary reserves to those who want to deny divine authority. Aside from that, though, it’s a cracking good tale, if a very odd one as it progresses.