Kristin Cashore’s Jane, Unlimited Explores the Infinite Possibilities of Storytelling

News of Graceling author Kristin Cashore’s first book set outside the Graceling realm dropped last November with a bang, thrilling and confounding fans with its intriguingly odd title and scanty plot details. Finally diving into the book months later felt like moving through a dream space stuffed with my favorite fictional obsessions: genre shifts, otherworlds, uncanny occurrences, the sense of secrets left unsaid. Jane, Unlimited—with its elements of classic orphan tales, Choose Your Own Adventure weirdness, and (per the author) homage to du Maurier’s Rebecca—is vastly different from Cashore’s previous books, and carries with it the unsurprising revelation that her writerly brain is, like Jane‘s estate setting, a house with many rooms.

The book is divided into six sections, beginning with its curious setup. Jane is a grieving, drifting 18-year-old whose Aunt Magnolia, an underwater photographer and her de facto mother, recently died while working in Antarctica. Just before the trip, her aunt delivered an odd final request, that gains new resonance following her death: that Jane accept any invitation she receives to grand estate Tu Reviens. After a chance encounter with her former tutor Kiran Thrash, the heiress daughter of Tu Reviens, Jane follows her aunt’s request to the massive, Frankensteinish house, finding herself amid a cast of shady characters on the eve of one of the Thrash family’s seasonal galas.

This first section of the book is packed tight, bristling with spiky little clues and oddities as Jane navigates the mansion and the story’s players: guests with guns; suspicious housekeepers; the house’s elusive master, happy-go-lucky scion, and missing mistress (and a very cute basset hound who seems to know more than he can say). She spends a night in the house, has an awkward breakfast, sets up a workshop for the beautiful, art-object umbrellas she loves to create, and develops a friendship (and maybe more) with Ivy, an intriguing member of the household. The house’s mysteries pile up around her, until the crucial moment arrives: a choice, to follow one of five characters in five different directions, each of which promises to lead her toward untangling a burning question, from the whereabouts of the vanished Mrs. Thrash to the nature of Aunt Magnolia’s connection with Tu Reviens.

The story takes the shape of an umbrella, and at the end of its first section Jane is standing at its center, choosing which of the mysteries to follow to its conclusion. In classic Choose Your Own Adventure style, the following five sections of the book take her down five different paths. Each unfolds depending on which character she has chosen to follow, and each is told in a different genre style, moving from the relatively earthbound to the purely speculative. The book expands outward like an alien flower, becoming bigger and weirder and more daring with every section, skidding from big-house mystery into slipstream (hooray!) while perfectly maintaining its unhurried pace and crystalline precision of language and tone.

Jane is a cool-headed heroine given to eavesdropping and acts of unexpected bravery, and while her story starts afresh five times, each section builds on the last in satisfying ways, ratcheting up the weird as the book moves from art-world intrigue to creeping horror to interdimensional sci-fi. Jane, Unlimited isn’t just completely different from what Cashore has done before, it’s unlike anything I’ve read—mysterious, precise, and possessed of a pure, clear mood that stays intact even through the genre shifts. It’s a wild gift for readers who like books that take them to unexpected places, by unexplored avenues, reminding us of the thrillingly infinite possibilities of story.

Jane, Unlimited hits shelves September 19, and is available for pre-order now.

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