Here’s the first book I finished as part of my March library haul. The Many Lives of John Stone is written by Linda Buckey-Archer, of Gideon Trilogy fame. Like Gideon before it, The Many Lives of John Stone is a historical fiction that draws heavily on French and British history. Unlike Gideon, however, the time traveling in this story happens through the pages of ancient journals. The story is told from multiple perspectives – two in the present day and one in 17th Century France.
In the 21st Century, seventeen year old Stella “Spark” Park meets an eccentric and mysterious middle-aged philanthropist named John Stone. For some reason, they are drawn to each other; John Stone offers Spark a job at his estate, Stowney House. She’ll sort through his collection of journals, which, mysteriously, date back to the 1600s.
The book takes its time introducing its cast of characters and their personal conflicts. Sometimes, with the early scenes from John’s perspective, I felt the author was overdoing the vagueness factor. We hear of Friends a lot, but nobody explains who or what they are. This is all supposed to be mysterious, I suppose, but I just wasn’t feeling it. After about 120 pages, though, things start to pick up; the various beginnings of subplots that seemed unrelated start to intertwine nicely. Spark moves into Stowney House, meets John’s totally weird groundskeeper, Jacob, and emotionally unstable housekeeper, Martha. We are also given excerpts from the first volume of John Stone’s memoirs.
Briefly, we learn that John Stone was born Frenchman Jean Pierre in the late 1600s – he has lived this long because he is part of a near-extinct humanoid race called Sempervivens. The journals serve as a bildungsroman, chronicling his heartbreak as he realizes he will outlive any spouse; his interactions with trusted, helpful individuals who know of his true heritage, called Friends; and his interactions with those who would abuse his unique qualities for their own personal gain. These journals paint a vivid picture of 17th Century France, its politics, and most gorgeously, the palace of Versailles. I really enjoyed reading these parts of the story.
I feel like Spark was supposed to be the main character, but like in The Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare, it seems the young protagonist serves as a relatively inactive pair of eyes to observe far more important characters. The book’s blurb makes Spark’s summer job, cataloging John Stone’s journals at Stowney House, seem like an important part of the story. Spark is only officially on the job for about a day before she leaves – ultimately, it was the journals themselves that prove to be important to the overall plot. Although we, the readers, are offered frequent snippets from John Stone’s journals, Spark only reads them towards the end of the book. The scene where she makes important, spoiler-y discoveries from the journals feels rushed – it had to happen before the book ends, but I feel like it would have been better placed elsewhere, earlier in the story.
As much as I enjoyed reading the journals, I just wish they had more a more obvious correlation to the present-day events. I get the feeling the author had parallels in mind, but for some of the mystery subplots, I felt like the book was giving answers to questions before they even arose.
The author, intentionally or not, does leave some compelling loose ends that I would love to see addressed in a sequel. For starters, there’s the backstory of Therese, a character whose only presence in the book is through posthumous letters left for John Stone. Also, we never do find out who is trying to kill the Sempervivens. Although John Stone has lived “many lives” throughout the centuries, we really only learned about the first life he led in 17th Century France. Perhaps, in a sequel, we’ll be able to enjoy excerpts from more such journals, documenting his life in other times. On its own, it’s a decent standalone novel.
All in all, I think I enjoyed reading The Many Lives of John Stone. Covering multiple perspectives across multiple time periods the way Ms. Buckley-Archer has in this book is surely no easy task. I think I expected to read another Gideon-style, predominantly sci-fi time travel story, but the differences from it ultimately proved to be pleasant surprises. Although it was slow in starting up, the plot eventually became quite gripping. It’s not a bad read for a lazy weekend. It took me three sittings overall to finish this book, which weighs in at 544 wonder-filled pages. I would recommend this book to young fans of historical fiction, ages 13 and up.
Parental advisory stuff: Rest assured, Ms. Buckley-Archer knows how to tell a good story with taste. With regards to “language,” I recall someone using the phrase “sure as hell” once or twice. I know this is shamefully stereotypical, but I bet there was a “bloody” or two as well. The worst thing you’ll hear from Spark herself is “Oh, heck” on occasion.
In the 17th century, Jean Pierre is assumed to be the illegitimate child of a royal, and there are a few allusions to that concern. In the 21st century, Spark fears she is an “unwanted love child.”
A French noble’s marriage is spoken of in passing as “not ideal,” because he is said to prefer the company of men over women.
In the past, Jean Pierre has a crush, whom he kisses “boldly” when their chaperon isn’t looking, although that’s the most we ever hear of it.
A character recounts having separated from her spouse after having a miscarriage early on in their marriage. The couple meets and makes attempts to reconcile their relationship on several occasions; each time, the character conceives and miscarries. This is more of a general “mature content” warning.