"A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last." --C.S. Lewis
You can find more of my reviews (plus discussions and giveaways) at Christina Reads YA.
1. (+) Finnikin, the protagonist - Finnikin is hard not to like, even in the beginning when he's not Evanjalin's greatest fan. There is quite a bit of posturing to the male characters in this novel, but it never felt overdone to me, and Finnikin's need to prove himself for himself and to others seemed to fit with his character. At age nine, he loses his family, his best friends, and his land, but he does not break even as he loses his faith. He learns to travel across the countries fighting for his people, learning various languages and cultures so that he could help his fellow exiles obtain better living conditions and potentially find another piece of land to settle upon since the curse may never break. He's the son of the Captain of the Guard, a loyal friend to the royal family, and an apprentice to the King's First Man. He's a scholar and a fighter, a warrior and a guide.
2. (+) World-building - Here's the main question to tell whether you'll enjoy the world-building: Are you someone who will get tangled in the details? There are different races in a small space, but there's not much intermingling to create mixed ethnicities. When I was browsing Goodreads after finishing, I noticed that this was a complaint of several of the people who did not like the book, so it's a fair thing to ask yourself. The magic was also confusing to me but it felt right for the kind of weaving, dreamy yet grief-ridden story being told. Although the basis for some of the plotlines, the magic is not the focus of the story. So if you're looking for that too, you won't find it here. The focus is always on the people. What happened to the people of the Rock, the River, Mountains, Flatlands, and Forest during and after the five days of the unspeakable. What happened to those who worshiped one goddess over another. What happened as a result of the political maneuverings of other countries lying in wait. What happened to those who were caught in foreign mines and fever and death camps, and those who held positions in foreign courts. What happened to the exiles and what happened to those left inside Lumatere after the curse destroyed their land and a mist separated the peoples for ten years. It's a medieval inspired world that seems to act as an allegory for historical atrocities.
3. (+/-) The Beginning - Alas, I think my struggle with Marchetta books is that I have a very hard time with the beginnings. While I appreciate the effort to jump right into the story, I find it hard without some sort of grounding block, getting to know Finnikin and co. before tales of the past are being told at night, before I learn of the history of Lumatere, a country I don't care about quite yet. There are a lot of names thrown around too -- it's high fantasy after all -- and it was personally hard for me to feel invested in things I didn't quite understand. But obviously, like with other Marchetta books, I am glad I pushed past my trouble with the beginning.
4. (+) Romance - Evanjalin seems to be one of the breaking points in the negative reviews I've read, but I love her character so much. She's a heroine who can rival any of Kristin Cashore's heroines, and for me, she stole the show and was much more interesting than Finnikin - the stronger leader of the two. She's strong, fierce, righteous, so devoted to her people that she will manipulate any and everyone. She will not be left behind on any adventure yet perhaps the times I found her most fascinating were the times of vulnerability, explaining her abilities as an empath who walks the sleep of Lumaterans. The times when she and Finnikin have their private moments, and you slowly see Finnikin realizing that this girl is extraordinary. Slow-burn and compelling all the way through.
5. (+) Character Cast - As I said before, this is a story about the people of Lumatere, and you get the sense in meeting every character that they have their own stories to tell even if the focus is on Finnikin. Everyone is affected differently by the days of the unspeakable and everyone has different motives for what they do and how they move on with their lives. Ms. Marchetta must have an insane character Bible to organize all of these wonderfully real people.
6. (+) Plot - How many plotlines were there? I marvel that Ms. Marchetta was able to keep them all straight in her mind. There's the story of the five days of the unspeakable, the love story, a prophecy, a curse, the strengthening of bonds between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and peoples of all sorts of different ethnicities and the weakening of those bonds when faced with human cruelty, and many, many more focused on love, hate, respect, pride, rage, vengeance, violence, abuse, friendship, loyalty, power dynamics in political schemes. One thing I will say is that I did sometimes get frustrated that certain plotlines got more attention than others. I'm hoping that those that didn't get as much will have more time in the sequels, such as what FROI does. What! WHY. And why was so little time spent on that? In general, the people are always reacting and moving on.
7. (+) Themes/Discussion - Have you ever read a book and thought wow, I want to take this book apart so I can know all of its layers? This is the feeling I get when reading Marchetta's novels, and especially with Finnikin. There are a lot of biblical and historical parallels to displaced people and lost nations and diaspora and the way languages, stories, and traditions are affected and tangled in all of the above. How people can become cruel when faced with darkness, and what keeps you holding on, what revives your faith in times of desperation and exile. How much belonging means to you.
8. (+) Writing - It's not as lyrical as that in On the Jellicoe Road, with its first person perspective, but it's still got that same haunting, dreamy quality as Marchetta weaves together history and various plotlines into another gem of a book.
9. (+/-) Pacing - One of my issues with this book is that at times, I felt rather bored. It's not just the beginning. It's that despite all the adventures the characters take and the awesomeness of the characters, the actual action scenes aren't given a lot of focus. You're often told after the fact about the dark things that have happened (the story is based on the five days of the unspeakable, but despite the characters's pains, I didn't feel the darkness). I didn't feel the danger in the way that would have had flipping, flipping the pages for the end. It's a story that's constantly growing and building towards its climax, yes, and there's plenty of intrigue and adventure and captivating relationships, but without as much tension as I'd have liked, and the climax itself wasn't that long.
10. (+/-) The Cover - If I hadn't heard of Melina Marchetta, I would probably walk past the book. It's got the right elements, but the faded face and sword is done better in Graceling.
Another thing that I'll say is that I didn't quite get the same level of *feels* that I did with the author's previous work. I certainly connected with this high fantasy much more than I did with The Girl of Fire and Thorns, which, like Finnikin, was technically well done, but I also didn't connect with Finnikin as much as I did with Jellicoe Road. Then again, I have also heard that Froi of the Exiles is where the heart of the series lies, so I'm looking forward to reading more of the Lumatere Chronicles and as always, more of Marchetta's works!
Even still I probably wouldn't recommend this book to everyone. If you have an aversion to fantasy novels, I think you might get lost in the beginning or find it hard to connect to this story; it is dense at times, and you may find yourself wavering if you're not already interested in the genre... But if you are a fan of high fantasy, Kristin Cashore, or Megan Whalen Turner, or are looking for a tale resonant with deeper themes and spun from a talented storyteller, you'll find a masterpiece, given enough patience, in Finnikin of the Rock.