I've definitely got some interesting things to say about this one. So much complexity in a deceptively simple package. One of the things being that it took me halfway through the book to suddenly have this brain flash: This is a
novel! And it is, absolutely. That fact is just a little obscured by the fact that it's not actually a future dystopia -- the world of the Restaurant is not our world at all, but a typical high fantasy world suffering from The Accident in which all magic was lost from a world that depended on it - a loss that coincided with the loss of the rightful rulers leaving the land in the hands of a 'provisional' Queen with a penchant for giving sickly sweet speeches about how wonderful everything is under her benevolent rule and making sure that anyone who doesn't immediately agree and tell her how wonderful she is mysteriously disappears. Said Queen is also determined to remove that pesky 'Provisional' from her title by any means necessary. Enter Jasper, the twelver-year-old son of one of the the kingdom's most eminent scientists -- now permanently reassigned to brewing ever increasing dosages of the kingdom's version of Botox for the Queen. The Queen seems to have taken an unhealthy amount of interest in Jasper and his little sister Sibilla, and in the family's flight from the city Jasper is left behind. What follows is Jasper's quest to reunite with his family and to save his little sister from the clutches of the Evil Queen. As in all good quest narratives, along the way he meets a variety of helpers and antagonists, and some who seem to fit in both categories. Secrets are shared and pasts are revealed, but it's all secondary to the main objective -- get to Sibilla and protect her at all costs.
And this is where I think this book really shines. It definitely falls into the category of 'kid has to save the day because the adults can't be trusted to do it right'. But all the adults in this book are *realistically* flawed. They're not stupid, or naive, but they are all damaged, with emotional and mental wounds that often impair their better judgement. Reading this, you're constantly reminded that the adults *remember* a time when things were good. There is a certain overwhelmed helplessness to their actions - you get the feeling they are constantly looking around in bewilderment -- how did we go from normal to *this*?
For the children, this *is* normal. There's anger, absolutely, but there's none of that paralyzing disbelief and denial. It is this very acceptance -- this almost protective attitude toward the adults -- that is most heartbreaking. I was struck particularly by the scene in which Jasper almost tells his aunt that the man she loves - who she believes is dead - was instead captured alive. He starts to say something, then catches himself. The man was captured. He's going to be dead soon anyway. No need for her to grieve twice. No twelve-year-old should have to think like that.
From my description at this point you're probably imagining some dark depressing narrative along the lines of The Hunger Games. That couldn't be further from the truth. The genius of this book is that the story, in all its dystopian anguish, is told in a straight-forward, fairy-tale style narration that, much like Jasper himself, downplays the darker events in favour of focusing on the next step toward achieving the goal. And, of course, there's quite a bit of humour sprinkled in for some much needed comic relief.