In the realm of the sci-fi/fantasy fans, I identify somewhere between the curious dabbler and the hard-core obsessive-compulsive connoisseur. While I can’t keep straight how Finrod, Fingolfin, and Galadriel are related, I know that the Inferi and the Cauldron Born are not the same thing, that Aslan is not Gryffindor’s mascot, and that Vogon poetry should be avoided across all galaxies of fandom. See, there’s that geek pride surfacing.
At the same time, I hold the fantasy genre to a very high standard. I shy away from reading anything that liberally contains proper nouns which 1) superfluously draw from the end portion of the alphabet 2) sound suspiciously like a foreign language 3) have more than four syllables or
4) any combination of the above. At no point should mystical hand-waving, prophesying, questing, imaginary creatures, and the melodramatic twin impetuses of Fate and Destiny overshadow basic things like plot, natural character development, good writing, plain old common sense, and fun.
So when I heard positive buzz for Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta, I couldn’t help it. And the absence of an impassioned maiden clutching the blade of a sword (ouch!), riding sidesaddle through thickets of brier and gracing the book cover seemed like a good omen. Alas, I should have listened to the fairies: Stay back, human. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.
From the beginning, Finnikin is dark and intense. When young Finnikin dreams that he must sacrifice a pound of flesh (did he read Merchant of Venice before bedtime?) to save the royal family, he and his friends, Prince Balthazar of Lumatere and Balthazar’s cousin, Lucian, “cut flesh from their bodies” as a pledge to the goddess Lagrami. Soon after, there’s a coup, the slaughter of the royal family, and a genocide within the kingdom. Finnikin’s father, the Captain of the Guard, gets banished for treason, an angry sorceress (who follows the goddess Sagrami) curses the land with a magical earthquake, and half of the Lumateran population are trapped inside the kingdom while the other half become refuges “forced to walk the land in a diaspora of misery.” And that’s just the prologue.
Finnikin belongs to the “diaspora of misery” group, and although he’s had ten years to deal with the information overload, we turn the page to find him and his mentor, Sir Topher, traveling to a random cloister on a hunch that the heir of Lumatere (hey, it rhymes!) lives. Instead of finding Balthazar, they get stuck with this mysterious girl novice with a will of steel, Evanjalin, who has special abilities and claims she can lead them to the missing prince. And so we begin the questing portion of the story, where our heroes add an urchin-thief to their ranks, spar, break Finnikin’s dad out of a prison mine, have smackdowns, regroup Finnikin’s dad’s soldiers, brawl, return to Lumatere, and generally beat the stuffing out of anyone and everyone. Meanwhile, Finnikin clashes with Evanjalin for leadership and control of the mission, (highlighting his mentor’s general uselessness,) but his initial dislike and distrust towards her soon develops into admiration and something more…
Now this could have been quite the journey had I not found myself overwhelmed by the plot and underwhelmed by the characters. Marchetta writes calamities at a pace that would lose even the most dogged Nazgûl. Unfortunately, she pairs this intensity with such density: unfamiliar proper nouns, lengthy backstories, and changes in POV mid-paragraph, oh my! (While my pet peeve about the avalanche of impossible names* might be malapropos considering the genre, I found the last point particularly frustrating since the entire cast minus Evanjalin is male.) It’s almost as if Marchetta is afraid to slow down and let the readers get comfortable with, never mind appreciate, the world she has built.
More importantly, the characters suffer from the pacing. Before I could stop reeling from the fact that Finnikin’s the kind of eight-year-old who cuts out his flesh for king and country, disaster falls upon the land. Evanjalin’s all kinds of manipulative ruthlessness, but there’s no time for that to sink in because she’s just sold Finnikin to a bunch of slavers and now he must fight for his life in a penal colony! (This makes their resulting romance all the more difficult to believe.) Also not helping their PR cause is the excessive amount of macho male posturing and preening from Finnikin, his dad, and their band of merry men. This is a world where people punch each other to show animosity or affection. The feminist Envanjalin calls them out about it, but affectionately so. Deep down, she is as enamored of Finnikin’s manliness as she hopes we are. Then there’s the inexplicable hero worship of her main characters, though they are deeply flawed and violently troubled. Imperfect characters are great, but Finnikin and Evanjalin’s imperfections are momentarily addressed but never resolved, glossed over when more action comes their way.
And I’ve yet to figure out why the thief boy and Sir Topher were part of the story at all, since their sole purpose was to make Finnikin look good by comparison. Although I was convinced some of the characters would kick the bucket before they reached Lumatere, I wasn’t anxious for them. Only sorely disappointed that I’d been wrong when they didn’t die. Even the grand character reveal at the end of the book fell flat. Plot-drives-character equals fail. Or a first attempt at fan fiction.
At the end of the day, Finnikin appeals to lots of people, though not to me, so you be the judge. Perhaps the curse on Lumatere will help you decide whether to keep Finnikin in exile or not:
Dark will lead the light, and our resurdus will rise…..resurdus?
That’s old Lumateran for king, but it looks like shorthand for really absurd to me.
*Antithetical goddesses of light and dark named Lagrami and Sagrami, for example. Lands that you won’t remember without a map. Although one is provided, I prefer maps of imaginary lands for their aesthetic value, not as a geographical aid. If I need to keep referring to it, that takes the fun away.