Well, it is Monday, which means it’s time for Book Love (and coffee…but that’s another story). Anyone who has either had the good luck to talk books with me, or ask me what time it is, really, knows how much I love Melina Machetta’s Jellicoe Road. I blogged about it here and talk about it constantly. And yet, it was a book I had to start several times before it really grabbed me. But once it did, it kind of never let go.
When I read that Marchetta had written a fantasy novel Finnikin of the Rock, set in an imaginary land, I had no real interest. Other than loving Lord of the Rings when I was twelve, I’m not a huge high fantasy fan. I like my fantasy urban and snarky, thank you very much.
But. But it’s Melina Marchetta. And I kept reading wonderful reviews of it. So I read it.
First of all, I should clarify. The world of Finnikin is a created one, with new countries, borders, and kings. But there are no elves, no magic rings, no vampires…the conflicts are strictly and painfully human. There is some magic, but truly, the core conflicts are ours.
As with Jellicoe Road, I found I had to push through the beginning in order to get settled within the story. There is a complexity in her storytelling that sometimes leaves me feeling I have walked into the middle of a play at the second act, without a real grounding of what and who is important. But once I muscled in, I loved it.
As with all books that I truly love, it starts and ends with the characters. Finnikin, the young man whose homeland is lost and who wants nothing more than to be the strong second-in-command to his mentor as they try to build a new homeland in exile; Evanjalin, the mysterious and unwelcome girl who proves tougher, more talented, and stronger than Finnikin could have known; Trevanion, the rescued father who is both fierce and fiercely loyal; Froi, thief, would-be rapist, follower, and lost boy, whose life without a home shows what displacement looks like…I fell in love with them all.
What I love most about this book is that the story it tells is utterly contemporary, despite being set in Lumatere, Yutland, and other made-up countries. It is a story of a people who felt secure until horrible things befell their homeland. Who were spread into diaspora, and who suffered all of the physical and emotional scars of being without a home. They are forced to address the inequities that existed in their old home, even while they mourn it. Pick up any newspaper or history book and these same themes of loss are there.
I won’t keep going about the other favorite parts of this book, because it gets spoiler-y. (But I will say…sa-wooooon! Just saying). But something struck me as familiar when I read this. In my own writing, I often want to tell two stories; the story I am writing, and the story beneath the story.
In SWIM, I am writing about mermaids. But that wasn’t really the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to tell the story of growing up, of questioning one’s place, of wondering what is selfish and what is fair, of not trusting oneself, and of the hard truth that true love doesn’t always last forever. In the same way, Marchetta might have written a story in a made-up land with curses and goddesses, but she is telling a story that exists in the conflicts in Africa, in the Middle East, and all over Europe. People lose their homes. They lose their identity. Sometimes – but thankfully, not always – they lose their humanity.
Finnikin of the Rock actually isn’t that different from Jellicoe Road. They both do what wonderful books must always do: transport you, baffle you, ask you questions, then bring you back home again.