"They will come," she said firmly when he joined her.
"And if they don't?" he asked. "I understand what you are trying to do, but your methods could get him killed."
"The captain will not let any harm come to his son."
"Sometimes fathers can't protect their children, Evanjalin. Did yours save you from harm?" Sir Topher asked, knowing the question was cruel.
"No," she responded fiercely. "But my father would warn, 'Be prepared for the worst, my love, for it lives next door to the best.' And for that I thank him each day of my life."
Author: Melina Marchetta
Synopsis: As a child, Finnikin sacrificed a piece of his own flesh to the gods to save his kingdom—not long before the five days of the unspeakable, when the king's family was murdered, his own father was imprisoned, and the land of Lumatere was sealed off with a curse. Now traveling among exile camps in neighboring lands, Finnikin finds himself teamed up with a secretive girl named Evanjalin who helps him one minute and betrays him the next. Finnkin just wants to gain relief for the Lumateran exiles, but Evanjalin is determined to find a way back into Lumatere itself—and she's convinced that a member of the royal family, Finnikin's childhood friend Balthazar, still lives. Finnikin would love to believe that, but then he'd have to trust the liar Evanjalin enough to do the impossible.
Notes: I've had my eye on Marchetta's work for a while, as she's acclaimed brightly around the young adult book blogosphere. Upon discovering that she'd written a fantasy, I had to check it out, and at the standard mid-book perusal of the back inside flap of the dust jacket—you know, that moment where you turn to the author bio because you want to get a look at the person who wrote the story—I was intrigued by this quote from her:
"I was told often that I couldn't write fantasy unless I had read all the greats and knew the conventions well, but I think the first step to writing good fantasy is knowing this world we live in well. I wanted to look closely at that world—where loss of faith, loss of homeland and identity, displacement of spirit, and breakdown of community are common—because these are the scenes in today's media that affect me the most. In this sense, the book is a search for identity in the same way that my other novels are."With the most common complaint about fantasy being that everything seems like a Tolkien rip-off, there might be something to Marchetta's philosophy. I can't speak for whether she ever read Tolkien, but few of the common tropes made it into Finnikin of the Rock. It's less farm boy quest narrative and more the story of restoring a little city-state overrun by tyrants and cursed apart. Inside the boundaries of the curse, the Lumaterans suffer unthinkable abuse, and outside, they struggle to survive and retain some sense of Lumateran identity as exiles in foreign lands.
It's strikingly symbolic. The author "grew up with Bible stories, and although this trilogy isn’t religious, it’s biblical at times" (quoted from her blog). While it may not be specifically themed upon any one religion, there's certainly religion involved; the Lagrami/Sagrami goddess duality suggests the yin and yang, and the names Lumatere and Evanjalin have obvious connotations. Evanjalin's treatment of the savage thief boy, Froi, is redemptive charity strong enough to be shocking, and Finnikin, whose anger and sexual escapades made me dislike him for much of the book, is pulled toward goodness by her higher standards.
Higher being relative, of course. This is dark fantasy, and even the best characters do terrible things. Marchetta portrays humanity at a level of degradation I've not often seen up close, and there's a lot of violence, including rape; there's some open use of prostitution, plenty of hatred, and endless lying. The bedroom scenes are offscreen in keeping with the teen label—not that the teen label guarantees that nowadays—but the talk of sex and menstruation is frank enough to induce blushing. It's not a pleasant, poetic read like The Lord of the Rings, in which the "struggle is not against flesh and blood"; it's a rough and gory tale of human evil.
The scenes, especially the fight scenes, are written with a cinematic feel that I sometimes found hard to follow. I thought the narrative could have used some editing here and there for clarity, though I'm not sure how much to blame that on the fact that I read it during a head cold. The plot and mystery, however, are strong overall; I felt like I should have seen the twist coming, but it took me by surprise while seeming exactly right.
The ending contains a lot of hope, and I suspect the romance will be very satisfying for anyone who can love Finnikin. Rage and lust are supposedly common to male experience, but Finnikin was so dominated by the one and careless about the other that I never developed much respect or liking for him. I did love Evanjalin, however, despite her own set of not-so-defensible behaviors, and the fact that I developed a sort of tender concern for Froi—not usually the type of character an author will get a reader to sympathize with—is all to Marchetta's credit.
Readers who like their fiction dark and earthy will probably love Finnikin of the Rock, regardless of whether they like fantasy. The story doesn't focus on magic and visuals, but on the human experience of cultural and communal breakdown and the struggle to survive, not just in body but in spirit and identity. It's got a lot going for it on those grounds.