It is night, and I have lit the first of seven candles to write my story by. My name is Coriander Hobie, and I have a great many things to tell–of silver shoes that tempted me and an alligator most rare; of London, the home of my childhood, and another, stranger land, one that I thought only existed in dreams; and of an ebony box whose treasure only now am I beginning to understand. The box was once my mother’s, but its secrets were meant for me.
This being my story and a fairy tale besides, I will start once upon a time . . .
Sally Gardner pulled no punches in I, Coriander. Her Cromwell-era England is harsh and full and the perfect backdrop to the very dark - and very darkly human - tale she tells. No one's life is simple or all that pretty in the book, but Coriander's is made even less so upon the arrival of her strictly religious stepmother, Maug Leggs, and Maud's...'preacher' Arise Fell. Maud is pretty damn bad, but Arise Fell is one of the most disturbing characters I've ever read in a kids book, maybe in any book. He is completely repugnant and utterly fascinating. Together, they are so throroughly creepy and villainous that your skin kinda crawls when they enter a scene, adding this great sense of threat and malice and tension to the story. But the best thing (or the worst)? They are believable. These are not over the top and unrealistic villains that yeah, may be scary, but are also utterly ridiculous. No, Gardner created two people who could easily be found on the front page of the news, or in a segment on 20/20. They are creepy and awful and utterly human in it. It's scary. And it can make for a very dark read, so if you don't like that or are sensitive to some things...be warned.
But the beauty of the story? Coriander. She never gives up or loses who she is. When Arise Fell arrives and introduces her to his hands of "Wrath" and "Salvation" things get decidedly dark for Coriander -- and yet, she refuses to give up who she is. She fights to keep her self and her identity, and she actively seeks out ways to make things right. That's so powerful for a young girl to be doing in any time, but especially in Coriander's time, and that's what makes it such a potentially powerful story for young girls. Yes, it is dark, but the fact is, there are plenty of girls who go through similar things, and seeing someone triumph can only be good.
I think, too, that Gardner's use of history is genius. The tale is perfectly suited to the narrow, suspicious, dangerous times it's set in. The setting just really works for the tale, and Garnder uses enough of the history to make it come alive and give it a sense of place, but not so much that it ever start to feel like a history lesson. Her Cromwellian England is almost tangible; I could have wished for a little more of the faerie world, but in the end, I think it kind of works as is on that score.
The only thing I really had a problem with was the ending, and some of the plot-device-y-ness of some aspects. The resolution was far too quick for my liking, and I definitely needed more of the prince and that whole story line. A big part of the reason I felt this was rushed, though, is that Coriander takes great leaps in age through the story, and I needed more from that. Every time she enters the faerie world, no matter how brief it may seem to her, she finds herself aged a few years upon her return to England. This is in keeping with mythology, and I am fine with it in its way - and even as a plot device - except it left me with questions. Like, if Coriander has aged from say 8 to 16 over a few successive trips that have only equaled say 2years at the utmost in England...setting aside the problems that would cause back in Cromwell times, it left me with questions about Coriander, mentally. Does her mind age too? Does her maturity level increase along with her growth? Is she essentially a different Coriander over night, without knowing how it happened, or who she has become? Because if so, yes, it's a little strange, and would have some serious ramifications - but if not, then the WHOLE BIT with the prince suddenly becomes hella creepy. Just saying, if Cinderella featured an 8 year old girl who just looks like a pretty teen about to marry a prince, I don't think it would be nearly the popular story that it is...
And whether her mind did age or not, the age jumps happen so suddenly that it's hard for the reader to shift their mind to the new Coriander, and it left me feeling like an 8 year old was being wooed by a prince... Uncomfortable-making, to say the least.
That being said, I don't think it is meant to be creepy, or even that it reads creepy. It's more one of those things you notice on reflection and are like, WTF? But I did thoroughly enjoy myself reading this, and think Gardner has a pretty good talent for crafting a world and a story, and not being afraid of darker elements, which I always appreciate. I, Coriander has elements of the Cinderella tale, and a definite fairy tale-esque feel throughout, but it is certainly its own story, and suitable to those who don't like fairy tales just as much as those who do, and in the end, I would recommend it with only slight caveats.
Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite/most disturbing parts of the book: the arrival of Arise Fell: