With the exception of James Joyce’s Ulysses, I’m not usually intimidated by books. I mean, they’re just books, right? What’s to be scared of? So I think I was a little surprised when I first started reading Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock and thought, “I don’t know if I can do this.” There is just so much going on: so much history, back story and emotion, so many characters, and so many different locations. It’s hard to grasp at first and it does feel overwhelming. I did think about giving up – but I didn’t and I’m so glad I didn’t because I don’t just like this book, I adore it.
Finnikin is the son of the head of the King’s Guard and lives a blessed life alongside his friends, the children of the royal family of Lumatere – until the five unspeakable days, when a usurper violently takes control of the country and a curse splits Lumatere in two: those who were inside the kingdom gates and those who were outside. Now, after ten years of exile, Finnikin is set on a journey that will change the fate of his country. He meets Evanjalin, a young girl who claims that she has the ability to “walk the sleep” of other people, including the long-lost heir of Lumatere, rumored to have survived his family’s massacre. Working together to take back Lumatere from the usurper, they set in motion a chain of events that will not only chart a new future of all of Lumatere’s citizens, but will also test their own abilities and challenge them in unexpected ways.
To borrow a fancy phrase, you start reading in medias res – in the middle of things. You are thrust into Finnikin’s world and left to figure out what has come before and what is happening now. In her review for her Tea Cozy blog, Liz B. described it as “playing catch up in Finnikin’s world” and that’s an incredibly accurate statement. There’s so much to absorb and make sense of: the harsh realities of the refugee exile camps, the political intrigue surrounding Lumatere, the hope – and the despair – of those who want nothing more than to return home, even when they know they may not have a home to return to, and so much more. There are dark themes, some hinted at, some bluntly explained outright – this is a world torn apart by war and treason, where young girls are offered up as sacrifices to barbarian impostors. But there is also hope, first from Evanjalin, then from Finnikin, hope that people grab at and hold on to when there’s nothing left.
Ah, Finnikin and Evanjalin. Two characters I’ve come to love intensely. There are a lot of wonderful characters in this book, but the story belongs to them. Finnikin is exactly who a hero should be: strong, proud and good. He has spent so much of his life trying to help his fellow exiles, trying to find some way to make this new life more than just bearable. As you watch him struggle to figure out what to do – even as he fights against himself to do the right thing – you root for him and cheer for him. He is destined to be the hero and even when he doesn’t know it, even when he doubts, you as the reader know that he is bound for greatest. Evanjalin is driven, determined and even a little bit defiant, but she’s also filled with hope and faith, two things Finnikin will need if he is to succeed at saving his home. She’s no damsel in distress and has an inherent strength and sense of leadership. She’s mysterious and secretive, and though you may not always be assured of her motives, you want her to succeed anyway, because you know she’s moved by a higher cause.
They challenge and push each other, refusing to back down, making each other better and stronger, even when they think they hate each other. They each have their own pasts to overcome, secrets that threaten to tear them apart, but at the same time, they recognize in one another the person they need to help restore their kingdom. They are good, through and through, and they sacrifice so much of themselves for others that, by the end of the book, you’re practically pleading with the author to give them the happy ending you feel they deserve. You’ll have to read the book to find out if that happens, but you won’t be disappointed because you’ll be able to spend time with these wonderful (albeit fictional) people.
My only complaint (and that’s really not even the right word for it) comes from the way information is presented to the reader throughout the novel. Since you come into the story in the middle, there’s a lot that you don’t know, particularly about the events of the five unspeakable days. Answers – and more questions – are revealed to you in bits and pieces over the course of the story. Much like a scavenger hunt, you have to collect these puzzle pieces and put them together to understand exactly what happened before the events of the novel take place. Even after finishing the book, I still found myself confused over certain details. I had to re-read a few passages over and over in order to try to fully comprehend what, exactly, had happened and even then, I was left with a vague uncertainty. Now, maybe I’m being picky about such tiny details, especially when so much of what’s good about the story takes place in the present, but the events of the five unspeakable days are so vital to the current action – are, in fact, what drives all of the current action forward – that I did wish Marchetta had been a bit more precise in fleshing out those events.
Still, it’s such a minor concern and I don’t think any of that takes away from the story. (It could just be a “me” thing.) The fact that there is so much information to understand and the fact that I wanted to know everything I could about little details is a testament to the complexity, richness and depth of the world Marchetta has created. It’s so fully realized and developed with such wonderful characters that I highly recommend you read it for yourself and make up your own mind.
[Photo Credit: Amazon.com]