Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Book One in the Lumatere Chronicles

Published September 29 2008 by Viking Australia

416 pages

 A solid 4.5/5 stars

Melina Marchetta is a well known and much loved Australian author. Her best selling, award winning novels ‘Looking For Alibrandi’ and ‘On The Jellicoe Road’ are constantly raved about with good reason. In some ways, its these two novels that have formed Marchetta’s trademark style, whilst almost becoming interchangeable with her name. So much so that ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ was successfully made into a movie in 2000.  So you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled across ‘Quintana of Charyn’ (late 2012) and noted that the book was first a fantasy/epic saga, and second that it was book three in a series I had never heard of? Naturally this combination made me a bit wary, because although I’d heard a lot about Marchetta and her work, I’d never heard her name mentioned in relation to fantasy books of any type; little know a trilogy. Marchetta is renowned for her honest and realist approach to contemporary life within various places of Sydney – AKA ‘the real world’. It’s why I read ‘Looking For Alibrandi’ (1992) and ‘Saving Francesca’ (2003) and I have/own ‘The Piper’s Son’ (2010) to read). To Marchetta’s credit, this lack of awareness could have resulted from me just being me, and while I had never seen the series in a bookshop, I clearly hadn’t shopped at the right time nor knew what to look for. It’s had been sold out – given who the author is, I wouldn’t have been surprised if this was indeed the case. Still, I think it’s fair to say this book, and its subsequent series threw me just a little bit. Regardless, I brought this novel based on faith in Marchetta as a novelist, and took it home feeling rather excited to be going down the fantasy road with her, but a bit anxious as to whether she could pull it off.

I’ve heard it said that writing a fantasy novel is one of the hardest thing an author can commit themselves to (though I imagine the whole process of setting out to write a novel is a bit daunting at times). For not only must they write a narrative that will capture their audiences attention and keep their attention despite the ‘otherness’ of the world it is set within, but they must first create the entire world’s history from beginning to end and then convey this information to their readers without simply info-dumping upon them. All of which I think we can agree on would not be an easy task in anyone’s imagination. So it’ was with this all in mind that I set out to read ‘Finnikin of the Rock’.

Ten years before the story opens, the Kingdom of Lumatere was besieged by neighbouring foes and taken under force. During the dark of the night it was believed that enemies had snuck into the castle and slain the royal family in their beds. When the wounded and heartbroken people of Lumatere tried to lay blame (for how did these enemies gain entry to the royal family in the first place?) to those responsible for these atrocities, fingers of doubt and suspicion swept the land causing its inhabitants to trust no one, not even their former friends and kinsmen. Blood was spilt and communities torn apart making way for a horrible curse to befall the realm and its people. To this end many Lumatere’s find themselves exiled from their beloved homes and kingdom (part of the curse means no one can gain entry or leave Lumatere, despite many people being forced out) and more separated from their families. This is where our story begins.

‘Finnikin of the Rock’ is primarily the story (oddly enough) about Finnikin from the Rock and his mentor turn guardian Sir Topher as they search their neighbouring kingdoms for fellow exiles. Finnikin dreams of reuniting the people once again in one place, but after ten weary years and too much hardship seen, he no longer believes that this can be obtained within Lumatere itself. Sir Topher, once the fallen King’s right hand man, and now appointed guardian of Finnikin (following Finnikin’s father arrest and imprisonment  – Finnikin’s father was captain of the guard and rebelled against the new king) leads Finnikin through the lands seeking counsel and giving caution when Finnikin becomes disillusioned with it all. When hope is all but lost for the pair, they are given Evanjalin, a seemingly nobody with a huge aspirations – to reunite ALL the people of Lumatere within their old country – and a stubborn belief in the idea that it is her duty and destiny to lead their people home to Lumatere and its one true king. With the duo now a fully formed trio, Finnikin sets out reluctantly on what he believes to be a futile mission only to soon realise that there is more to meets the eye where Evanjalin is concerned. Together they overcome obstacles and defeat that Finnikin and the people of Lumatere have long believed lost for good and only time will tell if they arrive safely at the gates of Lumatere and what waits for them on the other side.

In fantasy and epic saga type narratives like this one, it is often hard to give an honest review that does not give away too much of the story line. For like other narratives in the genre, ‘Finnikin of the Rock’ is a story that slowly unfolds before the reader’s eyes as Marchetta takes you deeper and deeper into the world that she has created. To this end, I encourage you as a reader to give Marchetta time to properly set up her world, for while the opening of the narrative is slow, the ending and more importantly the adventure under taken and the truths revealed are well worth the effort.

As is customary for a Melina Marchetta novel, her characters are well thought out and developed and although you may not understand their motives at the beginning, you cannot help but weep for them by the end. Finnikin is a strong male protagonist who has been forced into a life he never wanted – one he feels is partly his to blame. This blame and self-worthlessness almost runs him into the ground, but with the introduction of Evanjalin and her constant pushing of the limits, he is pulled from his failing mission and given hope, a dangerous weapon to be sure, and given a sense of freedom, but most importantly a sense of purpose.  For while it is envisioned that Evanjalin is needed to reunite the Lumatere people, it is Finnikin who must bring them home. Predictably Finnikin does not buckle under the weight of this as a character, but he does challenge it. For while the past haunts him, he can not grow in character the way those in the story believe he is meant too and if there is one thing Finnikin does not want to do it is to confront his inner demons and the past. He simply won’t allow it.

What I think I enjoy about Marchetta’s novels most in any genre is her strong, determined and capable female heroines and protagonist. Evanjalin is no different. In fact, her growth compared to Finnikin’s is stronger and longer – his is simply a matter of acceptance and purpose, hers is much deeper and buried in pain and memories she’d rather not face. Furthermore she knows her life is hard – just one look at her will tell anyone this with her bald head and pained eyes; but you don’t get a full sense of how deep this pain goes until quite late in the narrative. Nor at any point of the story do you get a sense that Evanjalin hates her life – she wants it to change yes, and wishes it had turned out different, but she accepts her fate. She knows what is in store for her and it gives her power. Power over Finnikin and fellow wanders exiled from Lumatere and power over the narrative, for she is determined at every point to get what she wants and puts the needs of the kingdom first even if it means she is to lose in the end.

Naturally, in a saga of this proportion there are many other key figures within the story that equally grow and deserve recognition for their parts, but I fear I cannot accurately describe them and their role without ruining the basis of the narrative, nor the twists and turns that our faithful trio have to face. I will however name some of them, for it is with the first real glimpse we through Froi (the servant that Evanjalin has claimed as her own)’s own eyes that really stands out as a pinnacle moment in the narrative – as one of its many, powerful and emotional turning points. Towards the end of the book, when Evanjalin’s health is struggling, there is such an amazing reunion scene between Finnikin and herself as witnessed through the slow and naïve eyes of a slave boy who knows no boundaries and has no understanding of the world; it simply took my breath away. Its simplicity and honesty was astounding. I think I must have read the small passage about ten times for it was then that I realised these characters and there situations and complications had left the page and were as real to me then as anything else was. I was completely enthralled in their world; their relationships that much like Froi, I could not bear to look away. Its moments like these that showcase just how exceptional Marchetta is as a writer. No matter the genre.

Sadly it is within this marvellous bit of writing that I also found the shortcomings of the story. For three-quarters of the narrative at least, we have been given the story straight. It has been bleak, and ugly and full of despair with only brief encounters of hope. You know what to expect. You are seeing the world through the eyes of those displaced. Through the footsteps of those trying to come home. Through the eyes of Finnikin with his guilt and sense of what must be done, and Evanjalin with her knowledge and unwavering optimism that they can go home to Lumatere. And then suddenly were cast into the eyes of Froi. The boy slave who resents his lot in life and perhaps rightly so; who knows he is just another pawn in somebody else’s game but is unable and perhaps unwilling to change this fact. It’s because of this I’m torn. Why change the perspective even only briefly? The change in point of view disrupted my reading, and pulled me from the magic of the narrative and made me question what was happening for the first time And while it’s true I was spell bounded by Froi’s truths and his unusual insights at what he cannot understand, I found myself questioning Marchetta. I understand that the following book is set around Froi’s character and while I do intend to read it, I’m left feeling unsure about this POV change no matter how fleeting and necessary it was for this story at this time. I’m torn because I loved this scene and Froi’s sight, but I just found it jarring when it begins with no warning. If only from the beginning Marchetta had maintained Froi’s POV along with Finnikin’s and Evanjalin’s I wouldn’t have taken any issues. I believe I would have given the book a 5 instead of a 4 then – or more accurately a 4.5, because I so badly wanted it to be exceptional. I didn’t want to find any flaws.

At the end of the day however, ‘Finnikin of the Rock’ is an exceptional narrative about the bleakness of the world, the struggle of humanity when exiled from everything we know and take for granted. It’s an honest, in your face sort of look at the varying levels of defeat and despair while also presenting a small spark of hope (Evanjalin) which grows as the story continues. It’s a world that although not our own, we can easily relate to. For despite the ‘otherness’ of the minor aspects of magic and sleep walking, it is more similar in our own then it differs. The despair and bleakness of the world and the life long struggles the exiles face is real and overwhelming. For their world has more than crumbled around them yet they still find the will to survive no matter how grudgingly, all the while knowing that while their homes still exist, they (the exiles) have no access to the lands, the people, the very foundations that make them who they are. The ending is no different, for by the time you have reached the last pages you are fully emerged in the world that you are too invested in the characters and their lives and you simply don’t want it to end. Ever. Thank god Marchetta made it a trilogy! I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the series in due time.

 This review will also appear on Goodreads.

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