Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta - review (and some musings on fantasy writing)

In one sentence: I wanted to like it more than I did.

Collecting it from the bookshop at the end of term, this was an eagerly awaited bit of holiday reading.  As I mentioned back here , I'm a definite fan of Melina Marchetta's writing.  Josephine in Looking for Alibrandi, and Francesca in Saving Francesca come off the page and into your head with such immediacy, in their flawed authenticity, with such clear voices, and both are books I reread every few years for the pleasure of spending time with them.

One of the non-school* books I've been (re)reading this year has been Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.    As with many fantasy/historical books, she has a world and a canvas and a considerable cast of characters.  It can be a catch, that considerable cast of characters.  Because I don't want to be fumbling with who's who, and where they fitted in, and what they did, and how I should feel about them.  As a reader, I don't like feeling lost.  In Gabaldon's books (and to be fair, I'm up to my umpteenth rereading of them, so I do know them well - but this remains true when I read each new one the first time too) I don't get stuck on who's who.  Even if I do go back to remind myself of exactly what they did and how she tells it, I'm not floundering as to who they are and how they fit in to the story.

This morning, I galloped through Finnikin of the Rock.  I'm a fast reader, but that doesn't stop me following/enjoying a book's story (ie. I don't think it's because I read it at my usual pace that I got lost).  The story happens in a multi-kingdom world; the kingdom from which Finnikin and his companions have come, Lumatere, has had bad things happen, and the arc of the story is their journeying towards a restoration of good.  Along the way, they have, as you would expect, assorted setbacks, challenges and adventures, meeting various people and acquiring the information necessary to return to Lumatere and prevail over the bad guys.

There is a quote from Primo Levi's work, If This Is a Man, which from memory references the Nazi persecution of the Jews**, at the start of the book, and for me this lay like a heavy hand on the narrative.  Persecuted people seeking relief/redemption: but just like you gotta be careful if your school debating team thinks of mentioning Hitler (as some will do in relation to almost any topic), this is a big ghost to raise.  The bad guys occupying Lumatere are, by and large, very off-screen, and maybe it would have been good to see them in action on the page, rather than seeing refugee camps resulting from the persecution, and hearing of black fog concealing Lumatere.  I wanted to care more than I did.

So Finnikin and his companions give us a view of the assorted peoples and geographies of the Land of Skuldenore (and it's that sort of shape, in the maps at the front, and somehow the name doesn't work for me - are we inside a skull, a dream, what?) as they journey onwards clockwise through Skuldenore's various kingdoms, and a couple of fairly guessable mysteries are unravelled, (don't most readers know that if you ain't seen the whole body, maybe that person isn't dead?) and it seems to take rather longer than necessary for the hero and heroine to finally get together (there's a line between engaging obstacles and irritating ones to such things).

Meanwhile, I found myself losing track of who some characters were, and after the big battle towards the end, either couldn't remember who some of the people were who died, or why I should care, because I hardly knew them anyway.  There were other characters I was clearly meant to care about, but didn't, and plot points whose point eluded me, and I can't remember why there are two goddesses worshipped in Lumatere, somewhat competitively; and thinking it over, I wonder if part of the problem, for me, was that although I'm sure Melina Marchetta has this world in great and wonderful detail in her head, this somehow didn't transfer to the page.

And so I felt lost, more than engrossed, and while I finished the book, and will certainly put it in the way of our many students who love fantasy books (and for whom voracious barely describes their reading appetite) it's not one I'll buy for myself (as I did with Alibrandi and Francesca), and I won't be investing in multiple copies for the library (as I did of those two in particular) unless it generates that level of demand.

It's a challenge, writing fantasy, to create a believable world.  First it has to be real enough to you, and then it has to be real enough for your readers, who don't know it when they first come to it.   You only have to see the success of successful ones - Hogwarts, or Middle Earth, to name two among many - to see how it can be done, how engaged readers become in these worlds, how real they are to them.  Take Robin McKinley, who's created several believable and engaging fantasy worlds (more Damar, please!  and more from the world of Sunshine!)

While the geography gives a context for the plot, it shouldn't necessarily feel as though it only exists to serve the plot (I still remember being annoyed that the mother in the Swiss Family Robinson seemed to have a Tardis-like canvas bag that she filled when the shipwreck was happening and which always seemed to have tucked in there whatever the plot, I mean family needed on their island.  I cannot imagine how she fitted it all in there, nor how it was able to be carried anywhere with all that stuff inside).  In Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea, the landscapes illustrate the narrative - Ogion's calm approach to the rain on Gont, the desertlike surrounds of the tombs on Atuan (not forgetting all that is implied in the labyrinths below) and so on.  Skuldenore felt convenient, rather than real.

Let alone, when I think about it, the many other books based on places I've never been, where as a reader I still feel like I'm there, Chicago in The Time Traveler's Wife or wartime/postwar Guernsey in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to name two I've read this year.  It's suspension of disbelief, and confidence the writer instils in you as they tell their story.

If you base your books on a world you know, then some stuff will just come to you because you do know it, inside out and upside down, because you've lived there.  With a fantasy world, there's everything to create - how and where people live, how they interact, how society and hierarchies work; and the world's geographies and surroundings.  That's the game and the challenge for the writer, and their responsibility to the reader***.  And for me, somehow, I felt on the outside of Skuldenore, and distanced from many characters, and indifferent to them.  I didn't want to, but I did.

If you've read it, I'd be interested in your thoughts.  As/when I get comment from students next term, I'll add to this entry.  On a minor note, I think the cover's lovely, but I wonder if the spangly twirly bits will be offputting to some of the boys.  Dunno.

So am I disappointed in this one?  Yes, I am.  Would I read another Melina Marchetta book?  Every time.  I'm still a fan.  The link at the bottom to the image source will also take you to a short video of the author discussing her ideas about this book.  According to this blog entry , her next book is a sequel to Saving Francesca, with Thomas as the main character and set a few years on, when they're in their early twenties.

Added later: For an alternative, more positive review of Finnikin from a NZ children's bookshop, click here.  I think my review is probably the one to which he refers, so it's good to offer you, the reader, different perspectives on the book. 

*bit too much bodice-ripping for a school library, but I can't tell you how many people I've successfully recommended them to.  First in the series is Cross Stitch, if you're in Australia or the UK, or Outlander if you're in the US or Canada.  They're unclassifiable, in that they're historically accurate time-travel romantic military-history fiction damn good reads.  Or something like that, with the first three centring on the Jacobite rising of 1745 and the later ones on the American War of Independence.

**it does.  Here's the Wikipedia entry on Primo Levi.

***I'm writing a novel myself, a long-term project, and am finding just those challenges in creating its world, so this is something that's of interest to me from both reading and writing points of view.

Image source and link to an author video of Melina Marchetta talking about Finnikin of the Rock. 


Anonymous said...

i love books, and am a great reader, though i haven't read many of Melina's books. i found the movie of her book 'looking for alibrandi' a good one, though i've heard the book's better (books usually are bettert then their movies) When it came to reading this book i was entranced, it has become a favorite of mine with it's humour, romance and adventure. it is a well writen book and i have to say that it painted a beautiful picture in my head of the world of Finnikin of the rock. i recomend it to readers (good, mature readers) 13+.

Anonymous said...

About world-building, have you read The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness?

It's a future world, clearly inspired by Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. What I found interesting is that Ness doesn't seem to spend much time at all in filling in the details of this world, yet still creates a vivid, haunting stage where the action can unfold. While this was perhaps a bit of a frustration (I wanted to know more at times) it does hold out the promise of more being revealed at a later time.
The Knife of Never Lettign Go recently won the Guardian Prize for Children's Fiction.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your review of Finnikin, I am not familiar with the author as I am new to Oz from the U.S. And I ABSOLUTELY agree with your comments about Gabaldon - I've read and re-read about Jamie and Claire for years and cannot wait to one day visit the Scottish Highlands!! Also, I have just read "Sunshine" and so dearly would love to read more about Constantine and Sunshine - so much so that I emailed the author! Additionally, thoroughly enjoyed the Guernsey Potato Peel... and of course The Time Traveler's Wife (both of which I am planning to re-read)!. Our tastes seem a bit similar - as such, would love to recommend The Thirteenth Tale to you by Diane Setterfield. I am formerly an english teacher of 8 years... thanks for the great blog!

Ruth Buchanan said...

@anonymous oct 8 - thanks for the recommendation. Might buy that one via

@ anonymous oct 16
What good taste you have in books! (she grins). Thank you for the recommendation - it's actually on my to-read pile, so this will bring it to the top. Many thanks, and for your kind comment on Skerricks, too. All comments on this blog are moderated - ie they aren't published unless I approve them, so if you want to discuss other books, leave another comment with your email addy and a NFP note on it, and I'll get back to you by email. Cheers.

Anonymous said...

I, sadly, have to agree with all your comments. I have always been a great fan of Melina Marchetta, and I enjoy fantasy. This just didn't work for me and while I usually gobble a book up in a morning, I found myself ploughing slowly through this one - nothing drew me on excitedly to find out what would happen next. And, like you, I didn't care about any of the characters at all.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I am giving up on this one at the end of part one. It seems a rather set piece and I don't know why anyone is doing anything. Can't stand Finnikin or his father or Evanjalen. The sexual references seem clumbsy and pointless. And there are barely any women, at least alive and present in the story.

You have used bodice ripper in reference to the Gabaldon's, but this is the world that kept coming to my mind about the style of Finnikin, although the content doesn't deliver even that.

Thanks for your thoughts!

clo said...

"The sexual references seem clumbsy and pointless. And there are barely any women, at least alive and present in the story."

I could not agree more. The bluntness of the mens and in some cases Evanjalin's innuendos were so crude that they made me flinch. That whole business with "how would you like your sword held" honestly reminded me of a couple of grade fours making blunt sex jokes about stationary.

I have to say, Tesadora was a terrible, terrible character. Her race has been near extinguished by the previous ruling classes nobility and she seems very bittter about that, yet she inconsistently seems to favour Beatriss (who needs to spell her name right) who seems to be alive in place of Tesadora's mother. And the whole business about her having sex with Perri the nutcase who incidently seems quite stable and generally boring to me, really doesn't make sense as she has this embittering hatred of men and he tried to drown her several times throughout her childhood.

Travanion has a nice name, but is also a ridiculously inconsistent character. He has a driving loyalty towards all Lumaterians but doesn't escape to rally his little chums and go rescue them from their perils until Finnikin makes a jolly visit to him in prison, at which point he beats Finnikin into a pulp only pausing to stop thrashing him just before the boy passes out to tell him that he is indeed fighting his father. Would it not make more sense to have told him that before? No, no, even though Travanion seems to love his child more then all Lumaterians, he still knocks the poor sod out.

I love Melina Marchetta and On the Jellicoe Road is possibly amongst the finest literature I have ever encountered. However, the plot of this book was like a sieve and none of the politics really made sense. Osteria is allied with Sorel, the same Sorel that is the most dangerous country in Skuldenore to Lumaterians but the prince still seems to want to marry Isaboe. Both Topher and Finnikin felt that Charyn was a barbarian country but Sorel was dangerous. But..... Isn't Charyn the "barbarian" country that formed an extremely clever and destructive plot to overthrow the original Lumaterian government and install a puppet so as to invade an extremely wealthy country through it?
Would you not think that perhaps this place would be slightly more hostile?
Apparently not.
And on Finnikins first documented voyage to Belegonia, he tells Lord August of a threat to Belegonia in the form of Charyn invading through Lumateria. But, um, forgive me if I am wrong... but isn't Lumateria completely innaccessible? Is that not the point of the whole novel?? So uh, good luck with that, my Charynese chums...

Anyway. This book's plot was like a sieve attacked by a mad axeman, as in, full of holes.
And all the characters, espiecally the men as in (as Marita Thomson says) most of them are completely obnoxious.

Sorry for my long and sarcastic rant.
And that was a great review by the way.
*clears throat*

Anonymous said...

Just for a different perspective, I actually really loved this book. I formed emotional atachments to a lot of the characters. Sure the plot was a bit predictable but really, 90% of plots these days are, and to me it didn't matter.

I liked the lack of specifics about the land, peoples etc. I felt it helped me to connect more deeply to the characters as individuals and not just a random group of people.

The tone of this novel reminded me a lot of Jellicoe Road (one of my all time favourites) - i really think the key to liking it lies in accepting it as a story without focusing on its genre requirements.

Sure it took me a little while to get into, remember peoples names etc but it wasn't that difficult (Lord of the Rings was much worse) and the little effort was well worth it.

Beautiful story.

Ruth Buchanan said...

Just noting that I'm happy to have people put forward alternative points of view on this book - everyone's entitled to their opinion, and more perspectives here means a collated source of more use to those interested in the book. Ms B.

Ruth Buchanan said...

[This comment is not from me: it's from a year 9 student and included an email address, so I've copied and pasted it as written, minus that identifying detail, so it adds to the discussion here.RB]

This is one of the best books I have ever read, I usually don't go for fantasy books but the book was recommended to me by my school librarian, it has humour action fantasy romance horror, a bit of everything which suited me heaps. I thought it was dragged out alot but it probably needed to be long for you to feel more for the characters and understand the plot, overall I would rate it 8.5/10 I thoroughly enjoyed it, once I picked it up I didn't put it down which lead to me finishing it in a day! I would recommend it to mature audiences (teens+).. READ IT and if you enjoy it read Sabriel By Garth Nix it is like finnikin of the rock but [I personally think] better, Sabriel was a fantastic,10/10 read.year9 student

Anonymous said...

I personally love Finnikin of the Rock and would give it a possible 9/10.
I dodn't find the plot that hard to be honest and found the charecters engaging, though i must admit most of the boys were a bit abnoxious.
i have always loved fantasy and i recomend it to 13-14+.

Unknown said...

I'm with the nay sayers. I, too, am a big Marcahetta fan but I don't rate this book, for most of the reasons given. I don't find most of the male characters, in particular, convincing and some of the faux pas's in the battle scenes were hilarious, but also sad as clearly Marchetta's readers and editors let her down in this respect.

Anonymous said...

I too agree with most of the things said. Overall I enjoyed the book (7/10 maybe) but I really didn't like the start or the end.
It started too quickly I think, with Finnikin and Sir Topher already ascending the mountains to the cloister of Lagrami. I think there should have been an introduction to the characters and the basic plot.
I was glad that Finnikin and Evanjalin/Isaboe ended up together in the end, but I wanted it to be Finnikin who carried her off into the sunset so to speak instead, of the other way round. (I don't want to appear sexist because I'm not, I'm just more of a traditional romantic.)
Also, I felt that the story lost its shine once Evanjalin was revealed to be Isaboe. Points to the author though for being unexpected.
This book definitely didn't compare to Marchetta's previous works, but I did enjoy the novel.
P.S. I also loved the cover artwork. My friend who’s an art student really liked it and lots of people commented. I'm a male, and I wasn't put of by the swirly bits but I felt that it made the cover a little bit crowded and gaudy.

Anonymous said...

I've never read any of Marchetta's novels, but I loved this story. I felt as though I was included in the world, and instead of long, drawn out explanations of the lands, the characters filled us in as the story went. I found them to be very likable and diverse and the sense of community that came across when the Lumateres were together seemed evident to me. Contrary to what a lot of people are posting, I'm glad the love story took a while to develop. It kept the anticipation up until the end. To me, if those relationships bloom too early, then it seems superficial and I don't believe in them. We get to see the characters struggle and develop with each other.
I also really love fantasy, so that may also be why I like it. This book makes me what to read her others.