Thursday, November 20, 2008

Children’s Books: Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

Australian, readers will certainly have heard of Looking for Alibrandi, Melina Marchetta’s wonderful first novel about the immigrant experience, seen through the eyes of a young Italian girl living in Sydney, trying to cope with various teen problems, including those headaches you have when you’re having to worry about all the old ladies of the community who mind your business for you. Even if you’re not Australian, you may well have fallen in love with Sydney through the gloriously warm, feel-good movie based on the novel.

In the last few years, Marchetta has written two other books, Saving Francesca and On the Jellicoe Road, both of which were a long way from Alibrandi.

In her fourth novel, she has returned to the migrant experience. Or, to be more accurate, the refugee experience. However, she’s done it in a way that many writers have used to make comments about our world: through the medium of speculative fiction.

In Finnikin of the Rock
(Penguin Australia), the title character has been travelling the various lands to which half the population of his homeland, Lumatere, have fled since the royal family was murdered and many Lumaterans massacred by the followers of a usurper.

Ten years have gone by and Finnikin and his mentor, Sir Topher, have been visiting the various refugee camps and rulers in the kingdoms surrounding Lumatere. Nobody can get in or out of Lumatere, which is surrounded by a magical mist that was produced by a dying priestess as she was being burned at the stake. Only the rightful heir can lead the refugee Lumaterans home and dispel the mist. There is a rumour that Prince Balthazar -- one of Finnikin’s two best friends -- may still be alive, but no one has seen him since his family died. Should Finnikin and Topher try to create a new homeland for the exiles? Should they trust Evanjelin, a novice of the Lumateran Goddess, who says she can walk through the sleep of the people behind the mist and knows what is happening at home? There is, in fact, something very familiar about her.

There’s magic in this novel, as you’d expect in fantasy, but that’s all. There are no dark lords, no evil sorcerers or large-bosomed witches, no immortal Dark Riders to chase a Chosen One. And when you do finally learn about the Chosen One, you think that if you were chosen that way, you’d plead with God to choose someone else!

There are only humans, good and bad. The bad ones are ordinary people, doing what they can get away with. Even the usurper king is wisely kept offstage rather than made the novel’s villain. Not all Lumaterans are good guys. Some have lost their identity and children are growing up without their language or culture.

In some ways, I think Finnikin of the Rock might have worked better if we could see a few Lumaterans who aren’t victims and who are so comfortable they don’t want to return, despite losing their identity. But the story takes place only ten years after the exile and wounds would still be raw.

Still, it does work, at least partly because the author doesn’t beat you around the head with the message as some writers and artists have done in recent years.

Marchetta manages to explore the overall issue of the refugee experience without preaching about any individual group. The style reminds me just a little of Howard Fast, who, apart from his famous historicals such as Spartacus, managed to write a lot of thoughtful SF and fantasy.

I’m not sure how teenagers will feel about a novel which is written like fantasy but isn’t really fantasy, but it’s a good story, with enough action to hold interest, and despite the apparent male focus, it has plenty of strong female characters.

Well worth a look.

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Anonymous Marcia said...

Finnikin sounds intriguing. I like the idea of there not being a powerful, distant evil one. The author challenges herself when she looks for the bad guys closer to home.

Marcia Calhoun Forecki
Better Than Magic

Sunday, November 23, 2008 3:17:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Jess said...

I really want to know who the seriously good looking guy on the cover is.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 9:26:00 PM PDT  

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