Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: "Finnikin of the Rock" by Melina Marchetta

If you like fantasy books that are first and foremost about the characters, not the battles, Melina Marchetta's "Finnikin of the Rock" is the novel for you.

Ten years ago, Finnikin's world was torn apart when his country's royal family was assassinated, and Balthazar (the crown prince and a childhood playmate of Finnikin's) either died or vanished. Half his countrymen were trapped inside the borders of Lumetere by a priestess' dying curse; the other half were outside the borders and cannot get back in. Finnikin has spent the years since roaming the world with his mentor, Sir Topher, as they do what they can to help their fellow exiles. For the exiles, lack of a home has meant depending on the goodwill of neighboring countries, and that goodwill hasn't materialized often.

Finnikin is haunted by the memory of a childhood fantasy and by a disturbing prediction. The fantasy: That he, rather than Balthazar, is heir and that he would be a better king. The prediction: That Finnikin would, indeed, become king of Lumatere, but only by spilling the blood of one of the princesses. Not surprisingly, Finnikin is carrying a great deal of guilt over what happened to his country. And then he and Sir Topher meet Evanjalin, a mysterious novice who carries a call to arms on behalf of the heir of Lumatere - who, she says, is still alive.

"And here you are, having learned the languages of the land and been taught the politics of the surrounding kingdoms by Sir Topher." [Evanjalin] stared at him intently. "Is that what you fear?" she pressed. "That you've stolen his life?"

"You don't understand," [Finnikin]` said. "I would make vows every night when I was a child. That if I were king, I'd change the plight of the Forest Dwellers. If I were king, I wouldn't be so soft on our Charynite neighbors. And Sagrami heard my dark desires."

In some ways, "Finnikin of the Rock" is a typical fantasy novel: There's a curse, there's a prophecy, there's the "chosen one" who must save his (or her) people. In other ways, it steps outside the bounds of its genre; the focus is less on the fight to retake Lumatere than it is on the path Finnikin takes as he shakes off the guilt of his childhood beliefs and comes to terms with his role in saving his country.

Evanjalin's story, though perhaps more important to the plot than Finnikin's, takes a back stage. She comes into the story knowing exactly what she has to do, and she never wavers. She's already fought her internal demons, and because of that, she's a refreshingly strong character.

Melina Marchetta's writing is smooth and highly readable. Her characters come across as true to life (with one irritating exception -- between the thief's awkward speech patterns and his persistent lack of growth, he never reads like a real person), and the dialogue is well-written. "Finnikin of the Rock" was a pleasure to read.