When I saw earlier this year that Kristin Cashore had a new novel, I was hesitantly excited. I loved Graceling, liked Fire, and thought Bitterblue was fine. Still, it’s never guaranteed that an author can come up with a new idea and world, and create another property as beloved as Graceling.
I started writing the review shortly after finishing this book in February, and struggled were to go with it. I noticed many other reviewers were deliberately vague, and couldn’t figure out how much I should share without ruining any surprises. Then again, I think I would have viewed pieces of the novel slightly differently if I had paid more attention to the structure prior to reading it because I was excepting one long narrative. In other words, this novel could be considered to have spoilers regarding the format and genre choices of the novel, but not the plot itself, if that makes sense.
It’s been almost a year since Jane’s Aunt Magnolia died, and in that time she has had to drop out of college. While waitressing, she runs into her former tutor and friend, Kiran, who invites her to come visit her home, Tu Revien, and to bring along her umbrellas. Aunt Magnolia once made Jane promise that if she ever received an invitation to Tu Reviens, she would go, so Jane packs up her umbrellas and accompanies her friend. Jane makes umbrellas as a hobby and many are quite artistic, becoming a bit of a conversation starter in a house of art enthusiasts.
Jane quickly notices several weird things going on at the house. A famous sculpture has been stolen, a stepmother is missing, the family dog is oddly attached to Jane, the housekeeper has some Ms. Danvers like tendencies, no one else seems to notice the children on the island, and those are just the obvious things. The house is the center for a convergence of weird phenomenon.
I have seen this described as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel, and while this holds true to an extent, the reader isn’t the one making those choices (unless you read the chapters out of order, which I wouldn’t recommend because there are sly nods to previous chapters). Everything that happens is the result of one point in time when Jane has to choose between five options, none of which seem that life changing or crucial. The novel examines what could have happened for each of these choices in order.
The set up allows Cashore to play around with genres, with options ranging from art heist, spy thriller, gothic house story (I’m not sure what else the short hand would be to describe this one), mad scientist to Narnia style passages to another world. I liked how the umbrellas Jane made changed based on the story and reflected different inspirations she had as a result of her interactions in different time lines.
While on their own the stories were all entertaining (except for the gothic house one which just messed me up) when taken together I came away more melancholic about missed opportunities (others may have a different response and see it as affirmation of all the potential life has to offer). Instead of being happy that I was able to see all the different ways one choice could play out, I was sad that certain choices necessarily precluded other things from happening, and meant Jane would never know about some of the other things going on around her. In some cases, it is still possible that a possibility could still occur so they aren’t all either/or options but some choices definitely preclude other things from ever happening. I wanted all the knowledge to be available to all the versions. Well, except for the gothic house story – that one was well written but so dark and sad. It probably is by design that Cashore follows up the darkest possibility with the one that feels the most disposable and least meaningful (though a fun little adventure).
While overall it was an interesting concept to explore, I look forward to Cashore to creating one world to explore deeply again rather than quick glimpses into a range of possibilities. The stories she did tell were all perfectly tailored to the novella/short story length and while I certainly would have liked to explore one of the timelines more, the majority were perfectly the way they are and do not require follow up or deeper exploration.