Book Review: Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

6719736Finnikin of the Rock

by Melina Marchetta
Candlewick Press/ February 9, 2010
399 pages
Source: library loan

At the age of nine, Finnikin is warned by the gods that he must sacrifice a pound of flesh to save his kingdom. He stands on the rock of the three wonders with his friend Prince Balthazar and Balthazar’s cousin, Lucian, and together they mix their blood to safeguard Lumatere. 

But all safety is shattered during the five days of the unspeakable, when the king and queen and their children are brutally murdered in the palace. An impostor seizes the throne, a curse binds all who remain inside Lumatere’s walls, and those who escape are left to roam the land as exiles, dying by the thousands in fever camps.

Ten years later, Finnikin is summoned to another rock–to meet Evanjalin, a young novice with a startling claim: Balthazar, heir to the throne of Lumatere, is alive. This arrogant young woman claims she’ll lead Finnikin and his mentor, Sir Topher, to the prince. Instead, her leadership points them perilously toward home. Does Finnikin dare believe that Lumatere might one day rise united? Evanjalin is not what she seems, and the startling truth will test Finnikin’s faith not only in her but in all he knows to be true about himself and his destiny.

In a bold departure from her acclaimed contemporary novels, Printz Medalist Melina Marchetta has crafted an epic fantasy of ancient magic, feudal intrigue, romance, and bloodshed that will rivet you from the first page. (Taken from Goodreads.) 

Opening Line

“A long time ago, in the spring before the five days of the unspeakable, Finnikin of the Rock dreamed he was to sacrifice a pound of flesh to save the royal house of Lumatere.”

My Take On It

First a disclaimer: I will always read and love Melina Marchetta. Be it contemporary, high fantasy, whatever genre she so chooses to write. Melina Marchetta could write non fiction (stifles a shudder) and I would read it. I will be a member of the Melina Marchetta fan club until the day I depart this earth. With that in mind, I hope you will pardon any repetitive gushing and fan girling you may encounter as you read this review. I really can’t help myself. I’m sort of an addict.

Finnikin of the Rock  marks a departure for the Printz Award winning author Melina Marchetta. Known for her amazing YA contemporary novels like On the Jellicoe Road and Saving Francesca, Marchetta took the plunge into the world of epic fantasy with this work and friends, she has once again made a splash. I love Marchetta’s contemporary works. She is a master at creating a character that is so true to life and believable that it will take your breath away. But high fantasy, as those who have read it will attest, is a wholly different animal. Works of high fantasy, in my experience, are not quick and easy reads. The author of an epic fantasy has her work cut out for her. Worlds, that may be very similar or very different to our own, must be crafted. Into this world the author must create people, places, and events that are foreign and familiar in equal measure. Great detail and development are a must, yet there should also be a mysteriousness that will keep the reader engaged and wanting to learn more. With Finnikin of the Rock, Marchetta delivers this and more.

It can not be an easy task to create this fictional world and in addition devise an intricate plot with layered and complex characters at every turn, yet that is exactly what Marchetta does. In the pages of this story are cryptic prophecies and dark curses. Magic and adventure abound. There is heartbreak and triumph, and there is a steady, solid romance between our two main characters that is built upon layers of trust and mistrust, truth and deceit, alliances and betrayals. In Finnikin, Marchetta has written a hero who is not only brave and honest, but like so many of his countrymen, lost. Finnikin can be rash and judgemental, but he is also able to admit his flaws and weaknesses. So much has been taken from him in his lifetime, yet he carries on, always trying to accomplish his mission of finding a new home for his exiled people.

“I stood in a pit of corpses yesterday. Stepped over the body of one just my age. Do you know what went through my mind? Rebuilding Lumatere. And as I watched the lad carrying the dead, I thought the same. I imagined he would be a carpenter. I could see it in these,” he said, his hands outstretched. “In a pit of death I imagined a Lumatere of years to come, rather than of years past.” He was staring at his mentor. “We have never done that Sir Topher. We collect the names of our dead, we plan our second homeland, and we construct our government, but with nothing more than parchment and ink and sighs of resignation.”

Sir Topher finally looked up. “Because any hope beyond that, my boy, would be too much. I feared we would drown in it.”

“Then I choose to drown,” Finnikin said. “In hope. Rather than float into nothing…” 

Evanjalin, wow, what can I say about her? The timid, silent girl we are introduced to at the story’s start is actually the strongest heroine I have ever encountered in a work of fantasy. She is fierce in her beliefs and will stop at nothing, including deception, betrayal, and manipulation to achieve her ultimate goal of reuniting her people and returning to her homeland. If she sounds vindictive, that’s because she is. But she is so much more. She has suffered unspeakable horrors and witnessed hellish events in her young lifetime, yet she somehow manages to never falter in her belief and hope.  Evanjalin is always a steady, faithful force moving forward and never stopping, willing to sacrifice whatever, or whomever, she must to fulfill her destiny.

As the story progresses and Finnikin and Evanjalin’s relationship grows, we are witness to some awesome banter, written as only Melina Marchetta can:

Despite everything they had seen, Evanjalin looked pleased with herself as they set off back to town. Instead of taking the main road, she crossed into the woods. “A much more pleasant track for walking,” she said. “The river runs by here.”

Finnikin stopped suddenly. “The horse? Where’s the horse?”
  She shrugged. “I don’t have my horse anymore.”
“Your horse? The horse was mine.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Evanjalin continued walking up the track. “You would never have stolen the horse in Sarnak if I didn’t encourage you. So I consider it mine.”
“But I officially stole it,” he argued.
“Fine. But the horse you officially stole was actually re-stolen and we had to trade the thief from Sarnak for it, so really the horse could be considered his,” she said over her shoulder.
Finnikin tried to control his anger as caught up to her. “So why don’t you have “his” horse anymore?”
“Well, a wonderful thing happened while you were off whoring. I discovered that the thief spoke the truth and had sold the ring to a peddler from Osteria who happened to be traveling in these parts.” Evanjalin dug into the pockets of her trousers and held out the ruby ring. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked, a smile of pure delight on her face. 
“Dazzling,” he muttered, bristling at the way she’d said “whoring.”
“You’ll like this route. The river will look lovely at this time of day,” she said.

And alongside moments like these are also beautiful passages of the love between the two:

And this is the way Froi of the Exiles remembered that moment they entered the golden meadow that hurt his eyes but made him dream of all things good. On the one side of the path was a stone fence half-covered with overgrown weeds. On the other, olive groves with pomegranate and apple trees mixed. And there in the middle stood the priest-king like one of those ghosts who appear in dreams and Froi saw Evanjalin in the high grass, her face pale but not with death or fever. She wore flowers in her hair and Froi liked the way their stems fit into the bunch of hair beginning to stick out of her head. And when Finnikin grabbed her to him and buried his face in her neck and then bent down and placed his mouth on hers, the others pretended that there was something very interesting happening in the meadow. The priest-king even pointed at the nothing they were pretending to see. But Froi didn’t. He just watched the way Finnikin’s hands rested on Evanjalin’s neck and he rubbed his thumb along her jaw and the way his tongue seemed to disappear inside her mouth as if he needed a part of her to breathe himself. And Froi wondered what Evanjalin was saying against Finnikin’s lips when they stopped because whatever the words were it made them start all over again and this time their hunger for each other was so frightening to watch it made Froi look away.”

I could talk for days about these two characters and how they got under my skin and became a part of me, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other wonderful people Marchetta introduces in this book. Strong, well written male voices like Sir Topher, Finnikin’s ever present mentor and advisor;  Froi, the young thief and fellow exile; and Trevanion, Finnikin’s father and Captain of the Guard are just a few that come to mind. In the beginning of the journey we encounter mostly men, but as the story progresses many memorable females join the cast. Lady Beatriss, Lady Abian and the indomitable Tesadora are all forces to be reckoned with and, like their male counterparts, they are all complex and multi- layered adding yet another dimension to the tale. It should be noted that while there are many supporting characters in Finnikin of the Rock, at no point did I ever feel bogged down with the weight of remembering who was who or what part they played, somehow it just continued to flow seamlessly along. And the relationships these characters share with Finnikin, Evanjalin and each other are just as poignant and beautiful as the one between Finnikin and Evanjalin themselves.

As with most great works of fantasy, there are connections to our own world written into the story being told. Religious unrest, division and persecution are all present, as are instances of scapegoating and genocide. And the atrocity of war, coupled with the horrible plight of refugees torn from the own homes and land, is most central to the story.

He could feel Evanjalin’s eyes on him as the sun before them disappeared at a speed beyond reckoning, “Then I will demand that you speak Lumateran when we are alone,” Evanjalin said, interrupting his thoughts. 
  “Will you?” he mocked. “And why is that?”
  “Because without our language, we have lost ourselves. Who are we without our words?”
  “Scum of the earth,” he said bitterly. “In some kingdoms, they have removed all traces of Lumatere from the exiles. We are in “their” land now and will speak “their” tongue or none at all. Our punishment for the pathetic course of our lives.”
  “So men cease to speak,” she said softly.
Men who in Lumatere had voices loud and passionate, who provided for their families and were respected in  their villages. Now they sat in silence and relied on their children to translate for them as if they were helpless babes. Finnikin wondered what it did to a man who once stood proud. How could he pass on his stories without a language? 

And it is this tone that resonates through out the book. When old friends and neighbors thought to be long lost are reunited, we feel their joy. When the long suffering exiles are once again brought together to take back their kingdom, we feel their pride and hope. And, without spoiling, I can tell you that everything does come full circle in the end. All the prophecies and dreams are interpreted and I was left feeling very satisfied with the outcome. And a little sad to be leaving all these wonderful people I had met and taken into my heart along the way. I wanted to end this with a little of what Marchetta had to say regarding the writing of this book:

“I was often told 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 that my other novels are.”

I read this quote right after finishing the book and all I could think of was “Yes!” If the contemporaries On the Jellicoe Road and Saving Francescaare about anything, they are about searching for oneself. And Finnikin of the Rock, an epic fantasy, does the same.

This book is why I love Young Adult literature. And why I will proclaim it’s awesomeness until the end of time. For all the naysayers, for all those who say Young Adult literature isn’t relevant and isn’t worthy, I challenge you. I challenge you to read this book, or any book by Melina Marchetta for that matter, and remain firm in that opinion. This book is a masterpiece. If you haven’t read it, you must. I will be picking up the sequel, Froi of the Exiles, which released in the US in December, as soon as I can.

5/5 Stars