Finnikin of the Rock
Candlewick Press 2011 (paperback)
When Finnikin was just a boy, he stood on the Rock of Wonders and pledged to save his kingdom, Lumatere. Not long afterwards, his land was invaded, factions massacred and his father lost to him. Homeless, he has travelled through different kingdoms, recording the stories of others in exile, stories of Lumatere, a land that they are literally unable to enter due to a strange and frightening curse. Years pass and nothing changes until Finnikin, now a young man, hears a voice in his sleep, whispering a name that speaks of hope and salvation, leading him to climb another rock and gifting him the opportunity to honour his pledge of long ago.
Finnikin is a man who is at once purposeful and purposeless. At the start of the story, he has long since buried hope, not daring to assume that he might ever return home. On discovering the strange novice, Evanjalin, who claims to know the whereabouts of Balthazar – Finnikin’s friend, heir to the Lumateran throne, assumed dead – his reaction is that of suspicion and anger. However, Finnikin is inherently optimistic as a character and over the course of the book, despite many setbacks, he allows himself to believe that the redemption of Lumatere is possible. It would be hard not to like Finnikin. He’s not always kind, he’s not always fair but he’s hopeful, fiercely loyal and generally kind and his growing affection for Evanjalin (against his own better judgement) goes a long way.
While Finnikin is the title’s protagonist, the book really belongs to Evanjalin and a stronger female character is rare to find. Like Finnikin, she is not flawless – in fact, she’s bloody-minded, contradictory and often downright irritating – but she is absolutely fascinating and, deep down, she might even have a heart. Marchetta allows Evanjalin’s character to emerge slowly so that by the end of the book she is truly a tour de force with a voice that will stay with readers long after they leave her behind.
As with many fantasy titles, Finnikin of the Rock has a large cast of characters and to talk about all of importance would be to ruin reader’s fun in meeting them for themselves but a special mention must go to Froi. After an ignoble start, Froi remains unlikable for the majority of the book, yet is one of the strongest characters. Marchetta does not attempt to redeem him for early actions in any noticeable way, instead she has him sneer and scorn his way through the story. Cleverly, however, she allows him two short segments in which he is the protagonist, hinting at a slow epiphany and a glimmer of hope. God love Froi, with his slowly emerging moral code and his desperation to make himself useful, he’s both hateful and heartbreaking all at once.
At times, the plot of Finnikin of the Rock can be quite convoluted but the heart of the story beats so strongly that it is utterly compelling. Unlike many fantasy stories, myth and magic never threaten to overwhelm what is ultimately the story of those made homeless by tyrants, but who also live with a guilt of their own making. It is the story of a people in exile and while embedded in high fantasy, it brings to mind images of refugees the world over. This is reality writ large on a fantasy stage and the result is a powerful tale for the modern world.
The writing, as has come to be expected of Marchetta, is nothing short of stunning. Her move from contemporary to fantasy fiction is seamless and Finnikin of the Rock is as good as any of her previous titles (including the mighty
Jellicoe Road and last year’s tour de force, The Piper’s Son). Many have a love-hate relationship with high fantasy but this, truly, is as good as it gets. Finnikin of the Rock is impossible to put down so pick up a copy and become immersed in the story of a lost land, a long dead family and a pair of small, bloody, handprints on a kingdom wall. Highly recommended.