Coriander Hobie led a fairly idyllic life up until the age of nine. Before nine she had a father who doted upon her and a beautiful mother who lavished her with attention and told her beautiful fairy-tales. The only incident that marred those early years happened when Coriander disobeyed her parents and wore the beautiful silver shoes. Wearing the shoes, Coriander spoke to witch and a terrible bird then became very ill. The incident is almost forgotten by the time Coriander turns nine when the most dreaded event takes place: Coriander’s mother dies. Her father is grief stricken and no more the loving dad Coriander has always known. He quickly remarries at the advice of friends–he is a Royalist at a time when it is much better to be a Puritan–to a strictly religious (or so she claims) woman who makes life miserable for Coriander, her father, and the woman’s own daughter, Hester. Life slides downhill quickly as Coriander’s father must run from the law and she is fully under the command of her stepmother and her stepmother’s awful priest, Arise Fell. It is during a particularly horrific incident with Arise Fell that Coriander discovers the “other” world. Coriander soon learns the connection between her world and the other world, and slowly figures out what she must do to save the people of both. Coriander must find her courage, be brave, and make some agonizing decisions.
Historical Significance: While I, Coriander is very much a fantasy novel it is equally a history novel. Coriander lives in London in the 1600s during a time of civil unrest in England. The king is booted from the throne and killed; his sons are forced to flee in exile. Those who still support the king are Royalists, and they are much targeted, their lives and livelihoods stolen from them. Coriander’s father, as was mentioned, was an outspoken Royalist which made him a big target. After the king’s death, Oliver Cromwell took over and ruled with an iron hand. Turns out he wasn’t much better than the king. During Cromwell’s rule a very conservative approach to religion was heavily enforced and any frippery or indulgence was seen as a slight on God. While I, Coriander was a personal story about one girl and her friends and family, the historical events of time had a huge impact on how her life played out. I am amazed at how well Sally Gardner was able to make the historical so personal. She also did this very well (even better, I think) in her newest novel The Red Necklace. P.S. The historical stuff I just talked about was my own summary from what I gleaned from the story and the historical background given by Gardner at the end of the book. If I misinterpreted or misrepresented, it is entirely my fault. While I love history, it is not always my strong suit.
Conclusion: A very strong historical fantasy. I enjoyed the fairy-tale elements of the story, including the beginning of “Once upon a time…” I thought the beginning was a bit slow. There is a lot of background, though that seems to be how Sally Gardner writes. She does not take a brief portion of a character’s life but tells of much of her main character’s lives. I loved this in The Red Necklace but thought there was maybe a bit too much in I, Coriander. Overall, I really enjoyed the book but prefer The Red Necklace, maybe simply because I read it first.
Read-a-like: I was reminded of elements of two other stories while reading I, Coriander. The first is the Gemma Doyle trilogy, which begins with A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray. Gemma is from the Victorian era and is also from England. Her mother was murdered and her death unlocks secrets of magical powers and of a different realm. The other book is The New Policeman by Kate Thompson (which is now part of a series since the second installment, The Last of the High Kings, was recently published, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet). The New Policeman follows J. J. Liddy as he finds his way into another world, a world where time is suspended, a world of eternal youth. This world is similar to the one that Coriander stumbles into. While she feels she has only been gone from her father’s world for mere hours, when she returns she is years older.
One Final Note: Check out Sally Gardner’s website. Her story is rather inspiring. Plus, I love the illustrations.