by Vanessa Di Gregorio
“A long time ago, in the spring before the five days of the unspeakable, Finnikin of the Rock dreamed that he was to sacrifice a pound of flesh to save the royal house of Lumatere.”
Before I begin, let me preface this by saying that I’m about to gush. A lot.
Melina Marchetta is a writing goddess; that is what I think now that I’ve finished this book. Her first foray into fantasy is not a light one; it is deep, and dark, and hauntingly beautiful. And I honestly think that the book I’ve just put down is one of the best books I’ve ever read.
You won’t often hear me saying that. The majority of books I read (and I tend to read one book a week) leave me feeling disappointed; they were either too light and airy and fluffy, or had characters I couldn’t connect with, or had a plot with too many inconsistencies, or was too predictable – really, the list goes on and on. And then I tend to find a book that surpasses my expectations, or completely surprises me – and I jump at the chance to let everyone know how much I loved it. But Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock has made even some of the books I love pale in comparison.
Simply put, it was pure brilliance.
I don’t even know where to start – but I guess the best place is with a summary from Goodreads:
At the age of nine, Finnikin is warned by the gods that he must sacrifice a pound of flesh in order to save the royal house of his homeland, Lumatere.
And so he stands on the rock of three wonders with his childhood friend Prince Balthazar and the prince’s cousin, Lucian, and together they mix their blood. And Lumatere is safe.
Until the ‘five days of the unspeakable’, when the King and Queen and their children are slaughtered in the palace. And an imposter king takes the throne.
And a curse is put on Lumatere, which traps those caught inside and forces thousands of others to roam the land as exiles, dying of fever and persecution in foreign camps.
But ten years later Finnikin is led to another rock to meet the young novice, Evanjalin. A girl plagued by dark dreams, who holds the key to their return to the Land of light…
This is a story about one young man’s quest to save his homeland; the story about a people – a country torn apart – coming together to unite once again; a love-story so dark and intense and confusing that it will, at times, leave you with an aching heart. Finnikin’s quest leads him on a road that will eventually take him back to the place he belongs in; the place taken away by invasion and dark magic. But his path isn’t easy – it is grim and dire, and yet he is able to find hope through Evanjalin – hope in the belief that Prince Balthazar is alive and that they will be able to return home. What is so brilliant about this novel is how it looks at humanity and suffering, and how Finnikin comes across people who have faced oppression and cruelty. Some of these people are broken already; but others still have hope, even though their world is crumbling at their feet. There is the belief that they will be led back to the place that belongs to them; that they will once again have a home, and be among those they unwillingly left behind. There is the belief that the false king will be dethroned, and that the true King of Lumatere will be crowned once again; that the curse will be lifted. But nothing is quite as it seems, and Evanjalin will test and manipulate Finnikin. And Finnikin, in return, will end up finding himself struggling to accept his destiny.
For an author who has never written in the fantasy genre before, she is great at it. Her world-building is fantastic – it is full of depth and history and culture and religion and political intrigue. And magic! This is a world with substance – a place that feels so extraordinarily real in its fantastical way. Coupled with her beautiful prose, you’ll find yourself relishing her every sentence.
But Marchetta’s greatest strength lies in her characters. This is a writer who understands the complexities of human nature and relationships; of heartache and doubt and uncertainty. She is able to make her characters live and breathe. Her characters are not easy to understand; and they are not always likable. There are times when they are so infuriating, when you find them lying and harming one another to the point of disgust; and yet somehow, their realness will creep into your hearts. They are some of the most compelling characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know. These are characters willing to risk everything for what they believe in, even if their beliefs are not always the same. And you will want to root for them; you will genuinely want them to prevail, to find happiness. And Evanjalin? She is brilliance. If there ever was a character whose motivations and actions are dubious, and whose thoughts are complex and confusing, she is it. She, like Finnikin, is not weak. While they both have moments of weakness and unease, they are not by any means powerless. She is strong-willed and capable, resourceful and manipulative, and very much determined; moreso than any other character. And it is her determination, and her strength, that propels everyone forward towards their destinies. She is the key to Prince Balthazar; the catalyst to Finnikin and the role he plays in bringing their people together.
There may not be huge epic battles or constant sword-fighting occurring throughout, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t any great fight scenes: there are. And when they happen, they are satisfying. But the book focuses more on the internal battles the characters face, and the obstacles they find in their lack of trust in one another.
As for the romance, I adored every minute of it. The connection was real, as was their chemistry. But if you’re looking for a romance with lots kissing and love triangles and fluffy sweetness, you won’t find it here. This is a romance of the epic kind – a romance between two people meant to be together, and who struggle not only with themselves, but with each other.
So yes, I loved this book. There is so much more I could say, but I’m not sure it would actually be helpful, as it would only involve me gushing adoringly over all the other characters and plot twists in this book. But I do hope you decide to pick this up. In fact, I think you should definitely pick it up. Is this the type of book for someone who isn’t into dark fantasy? Maybe not. But if you like fantasy, this is a must-read. If you love beautiful prose, this is a must-read. If you love dark, complicated stories, this is a must-read. If you like characters who are the most complex, infuriating, flawed, brave, and interesting, then this book is a must-read. If you are looking for a love story full of passionate embraces and constant physical contact, you will not find that here; but what you will find is a romance that blossoms from more than just the physical; a romance that is deep and satisfying and true. If you are looking for an epic story that is thought-provoking, this is it. Marchetta’s book is up there for me with the works of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, Tamora Pierce, Margaret Atwood, and William Nicholson – all favourite authors of mine.
So if you listen to me and decide to only pick up one book I recommended, this is the one. You will not be disappointed.
Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She also has a book publishing certificate under her belt. Currently, Vanessa is working on RIFT, a YA fantasy novel, and a Children’s non-fiction series. She also geeks out over at Something Geeky.