Australian writer Melina Marchetta, author of the YA novel Jellicoe Road and other contemporaries, turns her considerable writing savvy to fantasy with Finnikin of the Rock. Fans of Jellicoe will recognize some of the same elements that won Marchetta a Printz Award for that title: teenagers sorting out the complexities of shadowed personal histories, love, and war. The story-telling style is also reminiscent: Marchetta layers puzzle on top of puzzle, and rarely does any “hand-holding” for readers; you’re expected to jump into the deep end of the story with her from the start, and keep up as best you can. But for those who are willing to go along for the story ride, the payoffs are supremely satisfying. There are character choices that range from despicable to inscrutable to inspiring, engaging romance, and exciting plot developments that seem to spring out of nowhere. But because of Marchetta’s careful set-up, even the story’s most surprising moments feel earned rather than contrived.
The title character Finnikin enjoyed a carefree childhood in Lumatere, playing with the royal children and cared for by a loving father. But when he was nine, the violent overthrow of Lumatere and then an act of magic leave Finnikin, along with thousands of others, in exile. After living as an orphaned refugee for ten years, he meets a mysterious young woman, Evanjalin, who seems to hold the key to the one thing that might make Finnikin’s world right again: she seems to know the whereabouts of his one-time friend Balthazar, true heir to Lumatere. Now she wants Finnikin to help her restore the heir to the throne. But is Evanjalin to be trusted? Or do her sometimes ruthless actions prove that she will be Finnikin’s downfall, rather than the salvation his people need?
Although it’s a fantasy, in some ways Marchetta’s story feels all too real; she doesn’t hold back from including brutal violence, sexual and otherwise, in her character’s histories and actions. Younger readers may benefit from the opportunity to discuss some of these difficult realities with a trusted adult. But the inclusion of these elements is in no way gratuitous; more mature teens, especially those who have an ear open to history or current events, will recognize that these things are a part of any human society, but especially one that’s been ripped apart by warfare and a lust for power. And Marchetta more than counterbalances the darkness in her story; though sometimes extremely flawed, her characters prove capable of redemptive action, of loving deeply, and of acts of personal sacrifice to serve the greater good. An overriding sense of hope weaves throughout the novel.
While only some of Marchetta’s characters have magical powers, all of them hold an even more important power, one that will resonate with any young adult reader: the power to choose the kind of world they want to live in, and then the opportunity to commit themselves fully to making that world the reality around them. The true “fantasy” that Marchetta tackles may be the notion that individuals are powerless pawns in the greater game of politics; instead, her characters echo the defiant cries of others throughout human history who have said, “I choose a different life for myself, and here’s how I’m going to take action to rebuild my world.”
—Lisa Bullard, author and educator
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