I don’t often seek out fantasy as a genre (that is, besides of course paranormals, post-apocalyptics, and dystopias!). But for Melina Marchetta, I thought an exception was justified, and I was richly rewarded. [Seriously, you have not yet read a book by Melina Marchetta? Oh what treats are in store for you!] Yes, you’ve got to work your way through the Babel of alien names and places at the start, and it takes a short while to adjust. But Marchetta creates such intense, complex characters that you soon forget you are navigating through a different world as you become totally immersed in the story. Her characters are always, always people I wish I knew! Even when they are flawed: these are not people you want to slap, but people you want to hug!
We first meet Finnikin as the nine-year-old son of the Captain of the King’s Guard in Lumatere, one of the kingdoms of the land of Sculdenore. His playmates are the king’s heir, Prince Balthazar, and Balthazar’s cousin, Lucien. Fearing for Lumatere’s future, one day they make a pledge to protect it:
“Balthazar pledged to die defending his royal house of Lumatere. Finnikin swore to be their protector and guide for as long as he lived. Lucian vowed he would be the light whom they traveled toward in times of need.”
Their lives seem charmed until the onset of the Five Days of the Unspeakable, when the royal family is slaughtered, and many of the Lumaterans are murdered or driven into exile.
Ten years later, Finniken, now 19, along with his mentor, Sir Topher, are wandering the kingdoms searching for Lumaterans who need help. During a troubled sleep, Finnikin has a vision urging him to go to the isolated cloister of Sendecane. There, he and Sir Topher encounter a novice, Evanjalin, who claims she can lead them to Lumatere’s rightful heir.
And so they, along with followers that join them along the way, wander through the country of Sculdenore, with Finnikin and Evanjalin in the lead, in an attempt to get back home and restore the Kingdom of Lumatere.
Discussion: My plot summary doesn’t do justice to Marchetta’s richly fashioned world, in which we learn the history and culture of Sculdenore, and particularly the region of Lumatere. Nor can I convey the depth of feeling she instilled in me for her characters: steadfast Finnikin, fierce Evanjalin, loyal and gentle Sir Topher, Finnikin’s devoted father Trevanion, and the others you will meet during your journey along with them to the Promised Land.
(There are a number of illusions to the story of Moses, and indeed, at one point, a character overtly says “Let our people go,” but these references are not obtrusive or heavy-handed.)
Marchetta also incorporates universal themes that elevate this story above the usual fantasy book: Who am I as a person and how much of my identity relates to me as part of a people? In what ways do land, language and history tie us together? What makes someone “family”? How can we help redeem lost souls? Or should we even try? What, after all, does it mean to be human and how can we retain our humanity in the face of evil?
Special mention should be made of the character of Froi. He is a boy who grew up “on the street” in dire conditions, and now his behavior reflects that sorry legacy. But how each other character comes to terms with Froi and reacts to him tells you a great deal about what kind of person that character is. It is a wonderful narrative device, not only to spotlight the problem society has with outcasts like Froi, but to help us learn about the others by virtue of their interactions with him.
Evaluation: Fierce and noble characters, a dangerous journey, a realistic seeming romance, and a band of brothers make this book epically good, with a swoony but not saccharine ending you won’t want to miss! This would not only provide a great discussion novel for a book club, but it would make a fabulous movie as well!
2011 YALSA Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults
2011 School Library Journal Best Books of the Year List
2011 Publishers Weekly Best YA Books of the Year List
Published by Candlewick Press, 2010 (first published by Viking/Penguin Books (Australia), 2008).
N.B. Upon opening the book, I saw that Marchetta uses the poem “If This Is A Man” by Primo Levi as her epigraph. Right then, I knew this story was bound to sear my heart. And indeed, not only does Marchetta create an entertaining fantasy, but at the same time she gives voice to her anguish at the cruelty of mankind, and at the injustice we do to the victims by not remembering their stories always. As an adult, Finnikin defines his life by helping the victims of The Unspeakable record their memories. Marchetta’s heroine, Evanjalin, dedicates herself to giving the victims hope and redemption instead of pain and regret.
If This Is a Man by Primo Levi
“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.”