Review: Claudia Gray’s A Thousand Pieces of You

A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird, #1)A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up A Thousand Pieces of You because of its intriguing premise: most particularly, because the idea of a girl hopping from dimension to dimension to avenge the murder of her father sounded full of yummy sci-fi goodness. I still love the world of this novel and the vast potential inherent in the idea of interdimensional travel. However, the good old love triangle at the story’s heart weakens what could otherwise be a solid narrative with a great female protagonist.

The novel follows Marguerite Caine, the artist daughter of two brilliant scientists, as she joins one of her parents’ grad students, Theo, on his quest to catch the murderer of Marguerite’s father. They are chasing another grad student, Paul, who has apparently cut Dr. Caine’s brakes and sent his car into the water, then absconded with a piece of technology that allows him to leap into alternate-dimension versions of himself. Marguerite and Theo use the only two other versions of this technology in existence to follow, and Marguerite finds herself living the lives of a variety of other Marguerites, some of whose situations differ radically from hers (one is a Russian princess, and yes, there’s a perfectly rational explanation for this). As she and Theo follow Paul from world to world, Marguerite begins to realise that the situation is not quite what it seems and that Paul may not, in fact, be her enemy after all.

The best aspects of the novel involve the exploration of the alternate dimensions. Gray’s many-worlds model has a built-in acknowledgement of what one character calls the possibility of “fate”; in other words, while the worlds may deviate quite widely from each other in some respects, the same people do tend to exist in all of them (as wildly unlikely as it may seem that exactly the same sperm would penetrate exactly the same egg even when the parents of the child are coming together in extremely different places, situations, and circumstances). The world in which Marguerite is Russian is especially fascinating, as its technology has lagged behind that of Marguerite’s own world, and everything is very nineteenth century, even while many of the people who exist in our twenty-first-century still exist there (for instance, Bill Clinton is around, wearing mutton chops, apparently). The first world Marguerite visits is also intriguing because it is more advanced than Marguerite’s and thus allows Gray to play with some inventive technological innovations.

Another strong aspect of the novel is Marguerite’s own musings–and eventual deepening confusion–about identity and relationships. In the various dimensions, she inhabits the bodies of Marguerites who both are and are not her. In one of them, she has an experience that, as she acknowledges later, the “real” Marguerite should have had herself; it’s an experience she can never have again. Even before Marguerite begins considering the ethics of what she’s doing, the reader may feel uncomfortable watching her make certain essential decisions that have the potential to profoundly affect the Marguerites whose lives Marguerite is borrowing. The strongest segments of the novel revolve around Marguerite coming to grips with the consequences of her actions. Her interactions with the various versions of her family are also well handled. In some dimensions, her father is alive, and Marguerite is put in the position of having to spend time with someone she loves and she knows is, in her world, dead. In other worlds, her mother is dead. Her sister sometimes exists and sometimes does not, and once, she gains three entirely different siblings instead. Loss itself takes on a variety of dimensions through Marguerite’s dimension-hopping adventure.

However, the love story is intrusive to the point of being overwhelming. Love stories in general do not make me leap to my feet in joy, but I can accept a good love story that has a reason to exist and moves the plot along. While it’s certainly possible to argue that the love plot in A Thousand Pieces of You is really the main point, it acts to weaken, not strengthen, Marguerite as a character. She seems to accept as a matter of course that the big strong men need to be there to protect her. Even when she’s at the point of the story where she finally realises exactly what’s going on, there’s a helplessness about Marguerite. She gets quite a few nice moments of agency throughout the novel, and she’s at her best when she’s alone and forced to rely only on herself, but whenever one of the guys turns up, she tends to defer to him. While this could absolutely be part of her character growth–an element she must recognise and eventually overcome–it actually seems to become more acute as the story progresses.

As well, the triangular shape of the plot is such a well-tread path that even with its various twists and turns, the story becomes rather predictable. Let’s just say (without giving anything essential away) that I was pretty sure what was up with certain characters long before the shocking truth was revealed, simply because that was how the love triangle demanded the story should go. There’s one small surprise that is pretty neat, but otherwise, everything pans out as expected. The mundanity of the love story detracts from the stronger world building and also, more harmfully, from Marguerite’s growth as a character. When she’s going all gooshy about being protected and looked after by someone who treats her like a fragile, breakable doll, she has less time to ruminate on consequences.

In the end, I’m happy enough with this book to pick up the sequel (and likely the third volume when it’s released in November), but I’m very much hoping that sequel will give Marguerite more of a chance to shine. Her character still feels incomplete: promising, but too bound up in being an object of desire to become an agency-driven subject.

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