sequel fatigue, I finally found a standalone fantasy novel. Eureka! (Ironically enough, some parts of Finnikin of the Rock made a very strong case for a series approach to fantasy.) With just one book, Melina Marchetta did an admirable job pulling together a very complex world, an epic plot, and a huge cast of interconnected characters.
The book was slow-going at first. The prologue is pure backstory, and there is a lot of it: A big magical event rocks the kingdom of Lumatere, displacing half the population and trapping the other half inside. In addition, the royal family is murdered, a marginalized population is blamed/massacred, and a usurper seizes the throne. Got it? Good.*
Finnikin and his tutor Sir Topher have been traveling the land of Skuldenore since the “five days of the unspeakable,” trying to gather their destitute exiles and find a new home for their people. Nearly ten years after everything fell apart, they find a girl who claims the rightful heir is alive and well. Finnikin knows that if he finds Prince Balthazar, his childhood friend, all will be well. Thus, the epic fantasy quest.
After I emerged from the plot bog in the beginning, I still found it difficult to continue. It took a while for me to put my finger on it, but I think it was my initial inability to connect with Finnikin. Though the book is named for him, it’s not really his story. This story belongs completely and incontrovertibly to the “mute” novice Evanjalin. The plot picks up when she begins to speak and doesn’t stop until she says it does. (Spoilers to follow.)
It’s very smart to use Finnikin as the narrator, as his limited perspective allows the central secret to stay under wraps. In the beginning though, he’s more of a plot device to be shuffled around. He is first used as the impetus to get his father out of jail, a scheme set in motion by Evanjalin. When he is injured, the scenario shows off Evanjalin’s powers of diplomacy. He is her foil, the pragmatic compromise to her indomitable hope and iron will. I only connected to him when he started connecting to her, developing from a boy who purports to want “a sweet girl” to the man who falls in love with the active, ferocious woman.
There’s a whole lot of grrl power in what looked to me like a “guy book.” (It’s balanced out only a bit by Trevanion and his band of merry men.) You see, all of the characters driving things are women. Seradonna lays the curse that destroys a kingdom. Tesadora keeps an entire corrupt regime at bay. Lady Albie and Lady Beatriss thwart a reactionary war (and a sequel). Evanjalin single-handedly reunites the kingdom using any means necessary. She does what she has to do, and it rocks. (I need to get something out here: I love ruthless female characters. Ruthless really isn’t a word used to describe women often enough.) Additionally, all of the relationships in the book are based on the principle of equality, even if I think the women have the upper hand.
There are also a bunch of Big Issues and Important Messages. (They may have been more noticeable to me, as an older reader and a feminist, so I’m not sure how heavy-handed it was for the target audience.) A quick rundown: the consequences of war, the treatment of refugees, the importance of diplomatic communication (learning the native language), the significance of stories, the construction of identity/home, and the corruption of religion for control/subjugation, not to mention class stratification and rape.** Marchetta also crammed in a few different views of sex, mostly positive.***
Based on the intricacies of the issues/characters, I can’t help comparing this novel to MWT’s Attolia series or Kristin Cashore’s books. (Actually, the hardback edition invites comparison to Cashore, as she has a huge blurb on the back. Candlewick and Cashore together make me “whoo!” for the Boston writing scene.) Though it took a while to get going, Finnikin delivered on several levels, and I would recommend it to the right reader. (If anything, this book makes me want to read Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road and see what she does with a female protagonist.)
To wrap up this enormous review, I want to thank the universe for my break from the glut of YA trilogies. I really appreciated leaving interesting characters at the end of one book, so they could live out the rest of their “lives” through my imagination and not on 800 more pages.
*The prologue was cumbersome but necessary. It's only one book, so there was no time for slow development. With a series, we might have gotten this information in increments, allowing the actual story to start sooner. Maybe if the book started from the first chapter and fed us the tragedy in flashbacks/hints, I might have felt more for Finnikin. (There was a great "recap" spot during the thirdish chapters.) The trauma would have felt more immediate, and my curiosity would have been piqued.
**Some of it was pretty brutal and complex, but I’m not one to rule out kids reading things based on subject matter. It’s all about maturity level. Goodness knows, I never read “appropriate” books for my age/grade. Like my man C.S. Lewis noted: “Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.” If teens are exposed to some horrific things, let them learn from it.
***There was one bawdy bit that really needled me, not because it was bawdy but because I thought an opportunity was missed. The pronouncement of “her blood must be spilled for you to be king” was a huge dramatic point throughout the entire book, a prophecy that weighed heavily on Finnikin’s conscience. It was revealed as a joke about virginity, though the character in question had already bled A TON during the course of the book. (SHE STUCK HERSELF WITH AN ARROW ABOVE HER HEART AND THEN PULLED IT OUT.) It would have been more poignant to point that out, to underscore how much she had given of herself to put the kingdom back together, rather than go for a cheap gag.