Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Review of Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Marchetta, Melina. Finnikin of the Rock. Candlewick, 2010.

Like many of my fellow fantasy fans, I'm just mad about a book with a sword on the cover. Even when the sword has only the most tangential role in the overall plot, there is something so gleaming and heroic about a finely wrought blade.

However, it does get a bit confusing when one reads two sword-emblazened novels in a row, without stopping to review the first one before starting the next. Not that there's much similarity between the two books, except for certain familiar fantasy themes of conquest, conspiracy, and magic. Still, I have to shake The Red Wolf Conspiracy forcibly from my mind to focus on Finnikin.

The land-locked kingdom of Lumatere, peopled with fiercely loyal and intertwined clans and ruled by a beloved royal family, is conquered by treachery, wracked with five days of unspeakable violence, and then cursed by its most powerful witch. 10 years later, no one has been able to leave or enter Lumatere. What is happening within its boundaries is a mystery to the hundreds of exiles who live in miserable camps in Lumatere's surrounding kingdoms.

Most exiles have given up hope of ever returning home. Even Finnikin, who was just a young boy and the son of the captain of the King's Guard when the unspeakable happened, doesn't believe it's possible to return to Lumatere; instead, he and his mentor, Sir Topher, travel the kingdoms of the Land of Skuldenore, tallying the exiles in their camps, trying to improve their situation, and seeking a new piece of land the Lumaterens can call home.

But then a strange and very stubborn young woman named Evanjalin joins Finnikin and Topher, and she has a dream - that the remaining survivor of the Lumatere royal family will march back into Lumatere, accompanied by the captain of the King's Guard and other luminaries of that long-lost kingdom. That everyone thinks the entire royal family is dead and that Finnikin's father Captain Trevanion is in the worst prison in the land are no obstacles to Evanjalin, who will do and say anything to get what she wants. Who is she, and can she be trusted?

This is one of those fantasies in which the best scenes are those in which the characters, who initially don't trust each other (and for very good reasons), gradually, warily get to know, and even to respect, one another. All the folks in this book have been roughly treated by fate, some more than others, and they are scarred inside and out. Despite this, most of them keep striving not just to survive but to thrive, and this makes characters like Evanjalin, the young and obnoxious thief Froi, and the vilely mistreated Lady Beatriss both complex and fascinating. Finnikin himself is a heroic and rather uncomplicated character - but getting to know all these other folks helps him to grow in understanding and depth.

The Lumaterens both inside and outside the enchanted mist that surrounds the kingdom have faced starvation, plague, deadly attacks, rape, and other despicable acts of violence and terror. The hope and faith - in a royal family, in magic, in the Gods, in each other - that keeps people going is a theme that runs throughout this novel.

It's a restless novel, full of constant journeying from here to there in this small, slightly claustrophobic, but extremely diverse land. That such completely different kingdoms, with incredibly different languages, vegetation, climates, cultures, and ethnicities can lie so close together is a bit hard to swallow. On the other hand, European countries all lie smooshed together, and until relatively recently they were all very distinct indeed, thanks to the insular nature of pre-industrial life.

The themes in this novel aren't complex and there isn't any new ground broken. However, thanks to shining language, intriguing characters, and an unflinching look at the violence and indifference with which people often treat each other, this is a fine and worthwhile fantasy.

Recommended for ages 13 and up.

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