Finnikin of the Rock (2008); Froi of the Exiles (2011) and Quintana of Charyn (2012)
Viking Penguin Books Australia
Melina Marchetta’s foray into fantasy has been successful, in both literary and popular senses. Finnikin of the Rock was shortlisted in the 2009 CBCA Older Reader category and won the Aurealis Award for best YA speculative fiction novel. Froi of the Exiles has received wide international acclaim. The third book, Quintana of Charyn was published on September 26 this year. Readers all over the world love these books. Approximately nine thousand readers on Goodreads (www.goodreads.com) rate them an average of 4.38 out of 5 stars. A warning: This review gives away plot twists from the first two, but will attempt to leave Quintana relatively spoiler-free.
The series centres on a land called Skuldenore where seven independent country states coexist in an uneasy truce. Some are larger, more wealthy, or more culturally advanced. The first novel, Finnikin of the Rock, introduces readers to a band of wandering Lumaterans. They have been locked out of their country for ten years by a curse which shut Lumatere off from the rest of Skuldenore. Finnikin and his mentor Sir Topher travel from country to country, city to city, trying to locate other refugees, to record the names of the dead, and to try to help those who survive at society’s edge. This is high fantasy, but Marchetta writes with such power readers can see connections to their life and their world. The issue of displaced people is relevant across the globe.
Finnikin and Sir Topher arrive at an abbey where they are introduced to a novice, Evanjalin. She convinces them she knows where the heir to the Lumatere throne is, and they set off in an attempt to bring life back to their country and their people. Along the way, Evanjalin picks up a thief, a Sarnok boy who eventually reveals his name to be Froi. She also finds other important Lumatereans, like Finnikin’s father, who is the Captain of the King’s Guard, and his lost but devoted soldiers. In the end Lumatere is freed of its curse and the wandering refugees are able to return to their ruined and desolate home, but there is nothing predictable or easy about this book. The characters are flawed and emotionally damaged. The writing is dense yet luminous; readers need to keep their wits about them.
Finnikin could easily have been a standalone book, although there were clearly characters and events left unexplored and unexplained. Froi of the Exiles did not come out until 2011, three years later, and in almost 600 pages Marchetta ramps up both the action and the emotion. Froi is now 19 but is still treated like a boy by the royal household guard who have trained him as an assassin. It is clear Froi believes he has much to prove to these people. Their anger at the country of Charyn becomes a desire to kill the dreadful king of Charyn who played a significant role in the devastation across Lumatere.
But of course nothing goes to plan. Froi becomes involved in the increasingly tense political situation in Charyn, and meets the daughter of the King, Quintana — mad, damaged Quintana — and twins who seem to hold the fate of Charyn, and Froi himself, in their hands. This is an ambitious book, a multi-voiced narrative that moves between different characters smoothly and enticingly. We spend some time in Lumatere with Finnikin, we spend some time in Lumatere with Finnikin, but predominately we follow Lucien of the Monts as he tries to balance the responsibilities of leading his stubborn mountain people, with the additional burden of supporting refugees camping in the valley just over the border. The tension is heightened by Phaedra of Alsonso, Lucien’s Charynite bride through an arranged marriage, who he sends away. Phaedra, as with all Marchetta’s characters, is feisty and courageous. She has been embarrassed by Lucien and refuses to return home. It’s a lovely mess, described with humour and affection.
Whereas Finnikin ends satisfactorily, Froi does not. Many unresolved ends hang, and our beloved Froi is ripped open by eight arrows, and separated from his lost love. Fortunately, Marchetta does not leave her readers in the lurch for too long — Quintana of Charyn came out one year later, and was quite a bit shorter.
Qunitana of Charyn is an effective final novel. All the ends are nicely, though not all happily, tied. Once again we are given the points of view of Finnkin, Froi, Lucien, Phaedra, and this time we have small select sections from the mad woman herself. There’s never been a character quite like Quintana in any genre. Stripped of her dignity, her humanity, she manages to rise above her wretched life to embrace love and power. It’s extraordinary.
Yes, I loved these books, and believe Marchetta is one of Australia’s most talented writers. Young adults are lucky to have them.