I have a not-so-surprising secret to share:
I am a serious fantasy nerd.
I mean it. Before I went to college, became an English major, and learned that it is shameful to read anything but literary fiction, I was a rabid consumer of paperback fantasies of the $6.99 variety. If there was a dragon or a woman disguising herself as a man to become a mage/warrior/first class citizen or whatever the hell I was on it (and yes, I read A Game of Thrones waaaaaay before it became an HBO series). Then I was brainwashed into believing that if it wasn’t literary it wasn’t worth reading, and I spent years slogging through things that I didn’t really enjoy but appreciated. It was actually through delving back into the wonderful world of YA fantasy that I re-discovered my absolute mania for reading. However, my time as an English major changed me: I will still shamelessly indulge in genre fiction without coming close to giving a damn, but now I tend to filter my selections a bit more based on a little thing called “quality writing.” (But only a bit.) That’s where Melina Marchetta comes in.
I fell in love with Melina Marchetta’s writing when I read her Printz award-winning novel, Jellicoe Road. If you like really complex, slowly unfurling and beautifully written stories and like to cry a shit ton, then Jellicoe Road is probably for you. Once I read it I of course decided to pursue her other books, and that’s when I came across Finnikin of the Rock, her first fantasy novel for teens (which was published in 2008 but WHATEVER. I can’t be on top of every damn thing). Say what? Could a master of contemporary teen realism really make that transition? Well, in, short: hell yes.
When Finnikin was nine years old he received a prophecy stating that he must sacrifice a pound of flesh in order to save his kingdom, Lumatere. So, being a strapping young lad, he gets his two best royal buddies together on a rock and they each cut a chunk of skin out of their thighs all in the name of heroism. I mean, that’s pretty standard behavior for a nine-year-old, right? Right. So, right after they do the great thigh-cut-a-thon, the Five Days of the Unspeakable happens: the royal family is assassinated, Lumatere is invaded by a royal asshole of a cousin, half the kingdom flees, a healer/witch lays a blood curse on the land while she’s being burned at the stake, and then this crazy black mist thing engulfs the kingdom, trapping those who remained IN and those who fled OUT. Got that? Yeah, neither did I for the first hundred pages, but all in good time. Flash forward ten years to Finnikin, now a hunk of burning 19-year-old, wandering the land with Sir Topher, the assassinated King’s First Man, in an attempt to account for all the displaced Lumaterans in order to find a nice little chunk of land where they can settle without fear of being sold to slavers, abused, starved, forced to live in ghettos to die of disease, etc. This really pleasant past-time gets disrupted when Finnikin and Topher take on a mute Novice named Evanjalin who claims to be able to walk through the dreams of those still trapped in Lumatere. Oh, and she also says that the royal prince Balthazar, one of Finnikin’s royal thigh-cutting buddies, is still alive. Finnikin must rely on the evasive and suspicious Evanjalin to lead him to the Prince so that the exiled nation of Lumatere can return home.
If that all seems a little bewildering, worry not, it is. I’m starting to realize that one of the things Marchetta does best is throwing her readers in the deep end and rescuing them from drowning just a little bit at a time. Like Jellicoe Road, this book is a really slow, delicious reveal that takes about 300 glorious, glorious pages to really come together. In other words, this is going to be another rave review. I think what, for me, set this book so far above other fantasy novels I’ve read, both teen and otherwise, is the keen understanding of “real-world” issues that Marchetta effectively transmits into this well-imagined and built fantasy world. This book, aside from being an awesome epic tale full of battles and swordplay and conniving and journeys and lusty loins and all the things that makes fantasy so fun to read, is a story about the traumas faced by a displaced people. The ideas that Marchetta presents about the intertwined natures of cultural and individual identities and the how they deteriorate in the forced absence of a unifying “home” really resonated with me. The ways in which the characters’ lives and relationships are destroyed and rebuilt as a result of the Five Days of the Unspeakable have easy parallels to the lives of refugees in our own world and, for me, this is the biggest strength of Marchetta’s fantasy world. Because, sure, there are more exciting and deeply imagined fantasy worlds out there, but Finnikin is smart fantasy – fantasy that tells us something about our own world while it tells us an engaging story. There’s even some spot-on feminist break-down of the nature of goddess worship that can be directly connected to the destructive patriarchal nature of our world’s foremost religions that I really wanted to psychically fist-bump Marchetta for when I read it. You rock, grrl.
Beyond all that heavy stuff, though, this is a really solid story with good characters. I LOVED Evanjalin, even though I know there are some readers out there who had a problem with her duplicity. For me, though, Marchetta did a really good job of making her a dynamic, unpredictable character, a ferocious young woman who helps Finnikin grow into himself as a man through her own indomitable hope. Some readers may have to really flex their suspension of disbelief muscles when characters easily forgive Evanjalin’s continual “the ends justify the means” manipulation and lies, but the intended end is always so worth it that I didn’t have a problem with it, and only strengthened my appreciation of Evanjalin as a complex and crafty little minx. There is obviously some romance there but I really dug it. Evanjalin is awesome and Finnikin is awesome in a brooding and slightly arrogant way (again, Marchetta is good at realistic, complex characters), so when he started getting a boner for her I was totally on board. And no, that is NOT a spoiler. Anyone who has ever read anything, ever, should know that there will be a romance between them. Come on.
Now, this isn’t a flawless book. I did have a problem with Froi as a character – his attempted rape of Evanjalin seemed almost casually thrown in there, especially since Evanjalin seems to get over it almost immediately (OK, so she gets some short-lived but nasty revenge on him, but still). I had a hard time reconciling that aspect of the narrative with his transition into a sympathetic character, because it seemed like he was two totally different people in the beginning and end of the novel. I get that that was kind of the point, but I think I would have liked to see a bit more as to WHY he decided to stop being such a little shit. I am definitely very interested to see how he develops in the newly released companion, Froi of the Exiles. (Let’s just pause for a minute and say EEEE! I would say I already put a hold on it at the library, but that would be false. I need to buy it along with Finnikin, which says something about how much I dug this book.)
Overall, this is just a damn good book, and I say that as both an adult educated to appreciate literary fiction and a person who has devoured fantasy in all its manifestations since she was a wee little sprout of a girl. I think that readers who like to have a clear idea of what exactly is going on right from the get go may have a hard time with this, but I really love books that kind of make no sense at first and then gradually come together so it was just fine for me. I would also add that this is for the more mature young reader since there is some fairly strong sexuality for a teen novel, bawdy humor, and some fairly disturbing content.
Now, for the music! I actually couldn’t decide between two different songs, but then I realized that this is my blog and I do what I want so I chose one for overall theme and one for Evanjalin. This book is dark, brooding, and all about what it means to return after a trauma. Whether that means to return home, to return to relationships, or even to return to yourself, it’s a major theme of this book. And so, I went with some really sick metal, namely Arsis’ “Return,” because to me it captured the darkness that permeates this book.
Now, for Evanjalin. As a character, I feel that she is the quintessential “little girl lost” referred to in this song, whose years and years and years of wandering without a name or a home, rather than destroying her, stoked a fire that drives her to tear down the curse placed on her land so that she and her people can return home. So, Sleater-Kinney’s “Stay Where You Are” is my song for Evanjalin.
Where I got the book: The library