I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
I read this such a long time ago that I've almost forgotten it, but my recent thing with coming-of-age stories started to bring back memories, and all of them pleasant ones. One of them being in fifth grade when I was stuck in my mother's native Taiwan for two months with quite literally no book to read but this one, and I poured over this book repeatedly until it was falling to pieces in my hands. It held up to those rereadings remarkably well.
So what is this story? It's a romance, a fairy tale, and a coming-of-age story all jumbled into one. I know the last descriptor might seem off-putting, but this is no pretentious regurgitation of the Hero's Journey all over again. In fact, Christian's destiny actually lies more with romance than in adventure...which in my experience is much more of a "feminine" route, but it worked amazingly well here, for a number of reasons.
For one, the tone of this book is awesome. It's lighthearted and funny and still manages to get to the core of what it means to grow up. I loved Christian's nerdiness, his talent with inventing and his fascination with the world. I loved his relationship with Ed, his awkward but well-meaning foster father (and no, it's not nearly as angsty as that kind of relationship usually is--quite the contrary actually). So while I'd usually start screaming my head off at quotes like this:
All his life he'd had the feeling that he was headed toward something--something that felt big--but he didn't know what it was.
...It totally works here. I don't know why. I guess it just fits so well with the musing, thoughtfully-scratching-your-chin rambling storytelling style, one that captures the fairy-tale feeling quite well and one that my 10-year-old self completely fell in love with.
But Christian's story is not the only one, although it's the primary one. Marigold's story, unlike Chris, is not one of venturing out into the world but trying to find oneself at home, which she does when she forms her first friendship with Chris. This too is, I think, a coming-of-age story, and one that comes about through romance. Where Chris was raised in the nurturing environment of his happy-go-lucky foster father, Marigold's childhood is marked with much more emotional strife, having been trapped by social expectations she couldn't live up to and being overshadowed by her sisters, and being valued more as a political pawn than as a person. Her relationship with Chris is the first true validation of her identity that she's received in all her life, and it goes a long way to healing the abuses of her mother and her sense of not being able to fit in at court, as well as supporting the independent spirit we as the audience always knew was there. And how could we not? The time when she received the first pigeon message from Chris--ah, that scene has me dyyyying every time I revisit it.
One theme that caught my attention as a child and has stayed with me to this day was the importance of friendship. Marigold and Chris's relationship starts as a platonic (and anonymous) one between friends, and blossoms into a romance when they realize how much they've come to rely on each other's mutual support. Chris's relationship with Ed (his foster father) is ostensibly that between a father and a son, but often spills over into a friendship between equal comrades--in part because Ed doesn't know how to be a dad, in part because Chris doesn't know how to be a son, and in part because both of them are still trying to figure out who they are. The one thing they do know, though, is that they'll always have each other's backs no matter what. To me, that symbolized exactly what family and friendship is supposed to be, compared to the more conventional--but more unhappy--relationships like the ones in Marigold's family.
Lastly, I was fascinated by the humanizing flaws of the older characters. There's Ed of course, but I enjoyed how King's Swithbert tendency towards optimism and hoping for the best also led him to be indecisive, leaving his daughters to basically fend for themselves under their tyrannical mother, Queen Olympia. Queen Olympia herself plays the role of the villain of the story, and while a case for stereotyping "evil mothers" could be made, I don't think that really holds true--she's so bursting with personality, with all her glamour and extravagance and calculating ability to maintain social power over the court that it makes for one of the most vivid villains I've ever read, if not the most morally grey. At least, I don't think Ferris paints Olympia as evil so much as a powerful woman who happens to hold the upper hand in all her relationships, including with those of her family. It's an ambiguous portrayal, but it absolutely sucked me in as a child and still does every time I reread it.
The setting, now that I think of it, is pretty small in scope--itfeels large because of the way the world is revealed to us, as two neighboring kingdoms separated by a river--but most of the plot takes place in Ed's crystal cave, then in the castle of Beaurivage in the second half. Honestly, looking back on it, I'm so impressed with Ferris's ability to meld the sense of setting with the story to the point that it really does feel like a fairy tale, in that you always have such a vivid but subtle background to the plot at all times. The castle terrace, the crystal cave, the river, the noisy kitchen. It sounds so small and domestic and self-contained but the characters supply plenty of drama to make it really come alive.
I've come to appreciate this kind of story because it's so difficult to find, with all the "dark" and "gritty" novels flooding the YA market these days. The only equals in manipulation of tone and atmosphere with this kind of style I've managed to discover are Where the Mountain Meets the Moonand The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, although neither delve into romance quite as much, particularly the first one.