Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta (February 9, 2010, Candlewick, YA, 416 pp)
When Finnikin of the Rock people was nine years old, his world collapsed. In the five days of the Unspeakable, the royal family of his country, Lumatere, were assassinated. During the ensuing chaos, the people of Lumatere turned on the Forest Dwellers, followers of a goddess many of their countrymen feared. And so Seranonna, matriarch of the Forest Dwellers, cursed Lumatere as she burned at the stake...and soon its boarders were sealed with a wall of dark magic.
Some scattered bands of Lumaterens escaped before the border closed. Ten years later, when the story proper begins, Finnikin of the Rock is an exile, about to follow a dream that will lead him to Evanjalin, a strange girl who can walk in the sleep of the people trapped inside Lumatere. She claims that young prince Balthazar, rightful heir to the throne, survived. With this message of hope, Finnikin and Evanjalin travel through the many kingdoms surrounding the closed borders of their country, experiencing first-hand the horrors that beset their exiled people. And their path takes them, at last, back home...where they must face the Unspeakable.
Just to make it clear, I think this is a good book. It is, however, a book that does not make things easy for the reader, for two reasons.
Firstly, there is a large cast of characters moving in and out of the story, and a huge canvas of countries and regions, not to mention the complicated back story and tricky plot, to which my summary does not do justice. For the first half of the book, I felt confused, unable to invest in Finnikin and Evanjalin, and not at all sure that I was going to make it to the end. It's not a book for the fast reader, accustomed, as is my own shiftless habit, to skimming lightly over the surface of things. However, as things sharpened in the minds of the central characters, and their purpose became more clear, things became clearer in my mind as well, and the pages turned faster and faster...
Secondly, bad things happen to people in this book. Although not gratuitously graphic, Marchetta doesn't pull any punches with regard to rape, murder, racial hatred, religious hatred, slavery, sickness, and random violence. It is not a comfort read. But as with the issue of my general confusion, the main characters gradually developed an intense reality in my mind that made their story one I truly cared about, despite the horrors they witness and experience.
Evanjalin in particular is a stunner of a character--in my opinion, she wins the award for strongest, most determined young heroine of contemporary YA fantasy and science fiction.
In the end, it's a powerful story. A memorable story, with flashes of the numinous--that shiver on the back of the neck when words on the page truly become magical. I don't think it's for everyone--it's not pleasantly escapist fantasy. On the contrary, I think I'd recommend it to anyone who loved Patrick Ness' The Knife of Never Letting Go.
Which I didn't, exactly, myself (I like this one much better) so here's what I like best about Finnikin of The Rock--the generous serving of what happens after they make it home and start rebuilding...
Here a few other reviews--at Oops...Wrong Cookie, Reversing the Monotony, Persnickety Snark, and YA Highway.
Finnikin of the Rock won the 2008 Aurealis Awards Best Young Adult Novel, and was the 2009 ABIA (Australian Booksellers Industry Awards) Book of the Year for Older Children.
(note--review copy received from the publisher)