Melina Marchetta makes me want to be a better writer. She leaves room in her novels for the reader to think and imagine, rather than digest and accept. She is not only one of Australia’s finest YA exports, but one of the best YA authors working anywhere. Her dialogue is smart, witty, and authentic. Marchetta likes to explore social hierarchies and divisions in her novels, whether it’s between the Italian immigrant community and upper class Australians (Looking For Alibrandi), townies, cadets and private school kids (Jellicoe Road), or Lumaterans and pretty much everyone else (Finnikin of the Rock).
No one cheered louder than me when Jellicoe Road won the Printz last year. So you can imagine my joy when the ARC of Finnikin of the Rock arrived at the store. Since devouring it, I have thrown it at my colleagues and made them drop everything for Finnikin. Marchetta has become such a fixture in contemporary YA that the fact that her next offering was in fantasy was a pleasant surprise.
Finnikin, like many fantasy novels, opens with a prologue that promises betrayal, prophecy, magic, and a homecoming. Ten years later, we meet 19 year old Finnikin, an exile from Lumatere who has been traveling with his mentor Sir Topher, gathering the names of the Lumaterans who survived an event only referred to as The Five Days of the Unspeakable. Those who were in the kingdom during the events have been trapped inside by a curse; no one knows if they are dead or alive. The Lumaterans who managed to escape have been wandering the neighbouring countries and living on the fringes of society as refugees, kept from their homeland by the same curse that has trapped their friends and relatives. Along the way, Finnikin and Topher pick up Evanjalin, a young novice who puts Tamora Pierce’s heroines to shame with her cunning and ability to kick ass, Froi, a despicable yet somehow lovable thief, and many other memorable characters.
The “magic” in this novel is subtle and revolves around Goddess worship and earth-based mysticism. There are no dragons or wizards, but curses and heightened abilities. Hardcore fantasy lovers may feel they are missing the detail and world-building that is usually found in epic fantasy. Marchetta does not stop to describe the terrain or the differences between ethnic groups or even delve much into their history. Instead, you get glimpses of a world and a history through snippets of exposition that are skilfully woven into the narrative. This is a distinct aspect of all her writing. There is no spoon feeding in a Marchetta novel. Characters or events are referenced early on, but may not be explained or revisited for many chapters. Although I wouldn’t describe her books as easy reads, they are engrossing. They require a little bit of work and faith on the part of the reader.
Although Finnikin is definitely a fantasy novel, I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to non-fantasy readers. The story, the characterization and the quality of writing will engage a variety of readers, despite genre preferences. I finished this book with a sigh. It was the perfect holiday read, except for the fact that it kept me from family time because I just had to finish it. The novel ends definitively, leading me to believe that this will remain a stand-alone. Although I applaud the stand-alone fantasy novel in a sea of series, I, for one, want more. Then again with Melina Marchetta, I always want more.
Finnikin of the Rock will be released in Canada on February 9th, 2010.