Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta (Lumatere Chronicles: Book 1)

Finnikin of the Rock is the first fantasy novel written by Melina Marchetta, who tends to focus on mainstream fiction, and it follows the story of the boy Finnikin, who is of a village called the Rock. The world and situation is immensely complex, so I won't bother trying to summarized the story, but Finnikin is the son of Captain Travanion, head of the King's Guard for his people. The best friend of the heir to the throne, Balthazar, Finnikin grew up groomed to take his father's place. Then the Five Days of the Unspeakable took place. Assassins killed the King and his family, and general chaos and mayhem ensued as an imposter took the throne. One of the women mystics of the Kingdom cursed it while she was burned at the stake, and the people of Lumatere were split in two. Those who had been unable to escape were trapped within the borders of Lumatere, while the rest who had evacuated became nomads in their diaspora. Yet rumours persist that Balthazar survives, and the Lumateran refugees will only return to undo the curse if they are led by Captain Travanion, now imprisoned far away, along with the King's Guard, headed by Balthazar. A dream comes to Finnikin that someone knows where Balthazar dwells, a young girl in a distant monastery, and so he sets out to reclaim a kingdom that has been lost, and give his people their home once more.

Finnikin of the Rock is an unusual fantasy novel, but that does not mean it is lacklustre. It is more of an extended fairy tale in atmosphere and story than a pure “fantasy” in the way the genre is today normally conceived. This makes it a fresh entry into a genre often beset by copycat stories; if there is anything Finnikin of the Rock is copying, it is the dark fairy tale feel of the Brothers Grimm. Marchetta's prose is often lyrical and poetic, though this can occasionally be a disadvantage since this can make the action a little unclear at times. Similarly, some of the character motivations are beyond inconsistent and into the realm of fragmentary. Evanjalin is the book's primary secret keeper, and her lies and half-truths make less sense the further into the book you get. Hand-waving explanations like “you weren't ready to be told” can only take you so far when the real truths are so drastic and important, meant only to let us know that the plot twist itself was worth it. Without concealing the truth, there really wouldn't be a story, in this case.

Ultimately, though, the draw of the book is thematic and atmospheric, more than story. It is a story of diaspora, of a people scattered abroad in the world without a home, of a people that hold to the strong hope that one day the curse would be lifted and they could return to their homeland. The gradual build of the relationship between Evanjalin and Finikkin is wonderful to observe (the hopelessly romantic will adore the final pages of the book). It is about a boy-king terrified to lead his people who finds strength in those people who are around him. It is an extended, occasionally gritty, fairy tale out of the best sense of that tradition.

9/10 The draw of the book is thematic and atmospheric, more than story.

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