Finnikin of the Rock review

This review is an update of one I originally wrote for another blog some three or four years ago, now, and (bar some minor tweaking) it has not been altered.

Also, in case you haven’t noticed by now, wordpress formatting is utter crap – most times, it will let you put spaces between paragraphs, but sometimes it won’t, and when that happens, you’re just plain shit out of luck. I apologize for any inconveniences the bad formatting produces.

Finnikin of the Rock

For ten years, the kingdom of Lumatere has lived under a curse, with no one able to enter or leave it. Trapped outside the kingdom, young Finnikin of the Rock has devoted his life to securing a new homeland for the Lumateran diaspora. In the Cloister of Sendecane, he meets the novice Evanjalin, who has dreams of the lost Lumateran heir, Prince Balthazar. With the help of Evanjalin, Finnikin now has a chance to do what he never before thought possible: bring the Lumateran people home.

Take two things which I dearly love—fantasy adventure and Melina Marchetta’s writing—combine them together, and the result is pure, undiluted win. Marchetta brings her genius (a word I use without a trace of hyperbole) for plotting and insight into the human condition to provoke a sense of wonder and giddy excitement I haven’t felt from a book since childhood.

Finnikin of the Rock employs many classic fantasy elements, but it doesn’t read like a typical fantasy novel. It’s not a story about defeating the villain or winning/ending/preventing the war or saving the kingdom or even just saving one of the main characters. Those things all happen—more or less—but they’re aspects of the story, not its main focus.

The story of Finnikin of the Rock is a story of reclamation and recovering from trauma. Indeed, the book serves as a decent companion piece to Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery. At the beginning, you have the initial trauma of the royal family’s assassination, the ascent of a brutal dictator in their place, the wave of violence and terror these twin events unleash, and finally the curse by the dying matriarch of the Forest Dwellers. In the middle, the characters finally end the trauma by leading the Lumaterans home, breaking the curse, and overthrowing the usurper. For the final few chapters, you see them beginning the long and painful process of recovery and healing as they reconstruct their beloved kingdom.

Unlike Marchetta’s previous book—the phenomenal On the Jellicoe Road—the story here is of building up from tragedy, rather than building up to even more tragedy. This may cause the novel to lose out on a bit of its predecessor’s emotional punch, but on the other hand, I’m much more comfortable giving this book a blanket recommendation than On the Jellicoe Road—which some of the people I know would give up as too depressing. And when I say “lacks emotional punch,” keep in mind that’s in comparison to the greatest example of emotionally-charged fiction I have ever read. Finnikin of the Rock is still the most exciting, enthralling, emotionally engaging story I’ve read since … well, since On the Jellicoe Road.

Apart from being Marchetta’s first fantasy novel, Finnikin of the Rock is her first book to feature third-person narration and all-male viewpoint characters. Obviously, this was a book for Marchetta to stretch herself as an author, and she succeeds spectacularly.

The characters are a bit odd. Neither Finnikin nor Evanjalin come across as Mary-Sues, despite the former being fluent in seven languages, a master at swordplay, an adept knife-thrower, etc.; and the latter being a ridiculously resilient survivor with more than a touch of the Master Manipulator archetype.

I find myself having an especially difficult time describing Finnikin, as he feels like such a generic fantasy protagonist. Marchetta goes into sufficient depth with Finnikin to keep him individualized, and he’s certainly not a cliché hero. Coming from another author, I might even have been struck by his characterization, but he just doesn’t stick out the way Taylor Markham or Marchetta’s other protagonists do. It doesn’t hamper the story, but in this way at least, the book is perhaps not quite as good as I’d expected.

As long as I’m quibbling about the characters, I think Marchetta could’ve devoted a little more time to establishing Lucian before reintroducing him into the narrative. Finnikin spends the first two hundred pages or more reminiscing about his childhood friend Prince Balthazar, but not so much his other childhood friend, Lucian. When Lucian and Finnikin finally reunite, it should be a triumphant moment, but because he’s had only a perfunctory buildup, my reaction to this turn of events was rather tepid, and more to do with what I’d extrapolated about their relationship than what Marchetta showed in the text.

Compare that with the presentation of Trevanion. By the time he shows up, Marchetta has already established him as a deeply caring man and a first-rate badass. When he finally appears “on screen,” the reader already cares about him, and is stoked to see him kick some righteous arse. Which he does.

I’m also growing increasingly sick of the attitude in Fantasy that (to quote Niall Harrison’s review of Graceling) “monarchy is just fine as long as there’s a Good Monarch on the throne.” To be fair, someone does point out that the Lumaterans were so emotionally dependent on the royal family that their assassination throws the country into barbarism literally overnight, and there’s a throwaway line at the end about putting together a new constitution for the country. Yet the new ruler still demonstrates extraordinary unilateral powers – which is just fine because it’s a Good Monarch who only makes Good decrees. Blergh.

While I mostly enjoyed the romantic subplots, there was one line near the very end which made me wince. A female character tells her betrothed that when they’re married “you can touch me whenever you want. Wherever you want.”

The context is the two of them dealing with an overprotective guard. Now maybe I’m being an over-reactive Man!Feminist about this (again), but this assertion left me a little queasy. I don’t know what it’s like in Australia, but here in the US, the criminal justice system only recently overturned the notion that a wife signs over all control over her body to her husband upon marriage, and she therefore owes him sex any time he wants it.

Speaking of romance, just when I was thinking ‘all very nice, but this narrative is going to be completely heteronormative, isn’t it?,’ two of the King’s Guard casually mention being bonded to each other. Later on, Lucian casually teases Finnikin by telling him essentially “I don’t bonk other men, but if that’s what you want, I’ve got a cousin who’d be happy to oblige.” Sure, Lucian’s taunt may carry a whiff of homophobia if you take the suggestion to be emasculating for Finnikin, but the sexuality of the gay characters is treated as both positive and unremarkable.

The plot and backstory are as satisfyingly complex as I’ve come to expect from Marchetta, though the twist with Evanjalin must rate at least nine KiloBrooks on the predictability scale (the twist itself, not necessarily all the associated details).

Bottom line: Finnikin of the Rock is a lovely book, downright lyrical in presentation. As the story unfolds, the reader feels both the wonder of discovering a beautiful new world and the heart-beating intensity of grand, sweeping adventure. Highly recommended.

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Read this book!: On the Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta

I originally listened to this book on audio in 2009, after reading this glowing review by Kyra Smith of Ferretbrain, who, if anything, understates its merits. I’ve read it twice more since then, and am midway into my fourth read-through. The following is an update of one of a couple of draft reviews I wrote for the book after my first reading three years ago.

On the Jellicoe Road (title shortened in the US and UK to Jellicoe Road for reasons as yet incomprehensible) is the story of Taylor Markham, a student at the Jellicoe School (grades 7-12), a couple hundred kilometers from Sydney, Australia. Taylor has just been chosen to head the Jellicoe students in their annual territory wars with residents of the town of Jellicoe and the cadets who visit every year for wilderness training.

Taylor, however, has enough problems already, what with the pain and confusion surrounding several mysterious events in her past, the recent disappearance of her long-time caretaker Hannah, and the appearance in her dreams of a young boy in a tree who keeps trying to tell her something dire. The discovery that the leader of the cadets this year is the very boy who betrayed her three years earlier complicates the situation even further.

Interspersed with Taylor’s narrative is that of five friends who lived in the area twenty years earlier, brought together by a horrible tragedy on the Jellicoe Road. Their lives, their secrets, their triumphs and their downfalls will shape the fates of Taylor and those she cares about in the strangest and most surprising ways.

The story is extremely complicated, but in the end, all the loose plot threads come together in a rich, majestic tapestry with nary a fray or broken seem in sight.

I will admit that towards the end, I was beginning to figure out several of the book’s secrets before they were revealed, and at least once got mightily annoyed at Taylor for not making a particular connection much sooner. Still, it’s all good, and even at the very end, Marchetta still managed to throw some completely unexpected and deeply satisfying twists my way.

This is a book that you read and then reread and then reread again for good measure, first because there’s no way you’ll pick out all the pertinent details on the first run, and second because the story is so utterly captivating.

The characterization in <i>On the Jellicoe Road</i> is marvelous. Taylor is more than a little messed up (unsurprising, given her history), and often treats the people around her less kindly than they deserve. And yet she does care deeply about other people, and one of the great pleasures of the book is in watching her relationships with the other characters (and theirs with each other) mature and evolve as they grow closer together. Plus, she’s just a lot of fun, and even her more anti-social behavior (like that of the titular character on House) is usually entertaining.

The supporting cast is equally wonderful. They’re so good, in fact, that I can’t pick out just one or two favorites among them, and if I tried to summarize them all I’d 1) be here all night, and 2) spoil an awful lot of the book.

Another thing I should mention is that the story is deeply, incredibly, heartbreakingly sad. But, in a good way.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve ranted about the use of pain and tragedy in fiction as a shortcut to quality. And even when the tragic elements are appropriate to the world the author has created, they often feel unnecessary, only there to spur the protagonist to get off her/his/its butt and get to work already, or to pull the observers’ heartstrings, or to fill the authors’ angst quota.

It therefore came as something of a shock for me, upon reading On the Jellicoe Road to (re-)discover that tragedy can work to make a story better, in the right hands. The hands of Melina Marchetta, for example.

The copious amounts of pain and suffering and loss highlight moments of joy and connection and forgiveness, which are also in plentiful supply. This bittersweet mood runs through the entire book, and the epilogue is unbearably poignant.

I should throw in a word of warning here. While the tragic elements do enhance the story, they might be overwhelming to people (especially young people) who have not already been desensitized to tragedy in fiction. Sad books are not for everyone, so I would encourage anyone thinking of picking up this book to consider carefully whether they can handle this level of intensity before proceeding.

Which is not to say it’s all grim and gloomy. Those elements are omnipresent, and grow more prominent as the story progresses, but as already mentioned, there’s also great happiness and wonder. Additionally, the book is often very funny, with Taylor’s first person narration providing many entertaining observation, and plenty of witty banter among the various characters.

There are occasional flubs and missteps, and I find many of the political viewpoints which crop up highly suspect, but all these concerns are exponentially surpassed by the mastery of the plot, the richness of characterization, and the heartbreakingly beautiful emotional core of the story. All these elements and more make On the Jellicoe Road a towering literary achievement. With the sole caveat of emotional intensity, I give this book my highest possible recommendation.