fiction · Lit · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · young adult lit

upon this rock i will build…

I had already been warned that Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock would be a departure from her usual fare. Not a contemporary realist drama, though still imbued with magical sensibility, Finnikin is a fantasy novel of the flavor of a medieval realm . What I wasn’t quite ready for was what a departure Finnikin of the Rock would be from many of its counterparts in the genre.

Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta

(first published Viking/Penguin (Australia) w/ a gorgeous cover, 2008)

I read the First Candlewick Press Edition w/ this cover (r), 2010.

399 pages, hardback.

Read because I love Marchetta’s Jellicoe Road and plan to read all her books.

Finnikin was only a child during the five days of the unspeakable, when the royal family of Lumatere were brutally murdered, and an imposter seized the throne. Now a curse binds all who remain inside Lumatere’s walls, and those who escaped roam the surrounding lands as exiles, persecuted and despairing, dying by the thousands in fever camps. In a narrative crackling with the tension of an imminent storm, Finnikin, now on the cusp of manhood, is compelled to join forces with an arrogant and enigmatic young novice named Evanjalin, who claims that her dark dreams will lead the exiles to a surviving royal child and a way to pierce the cursed barrier and regain the land of Lumatere. But Evanjalin’s unpredictable behavior suggests that she is not what she seems — and the startling truth will test Finnikin’s faith not only in her, but in all he knows to be true about himself and his destiny.~publisher’s comments

This is one where I believe the dust jacket’s allure to be tantalizing enough and paired with the knowledge that Melina Marchetta is a talented Writer, the book should be read. I would only add that it is listed Young Adult and youthful, however mature, readers might should leave it on the teen shelf until you yourself are one a few years—this due to the inferred violence, to the sexual content, and with regards to machinations better understood by more mature audiences.

The rest of this post is my contemplating a feminist perspective in Finnikin of the Rock, a draft wherein I actually keep it spoiler-free (odd, I know). Mind, it is a draft, and it is a bit lengthy: regardless, thought I would put it out here.


working title may be (?): blood and swords

I had already been warned that Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock would be a departure from her usual fare. Not a contemporary realist drama, though still imbued with magical sensibility, Finnikin is a fantasy novel of the flavor a medieval realm. What I wasn’t quite ready for was what a departure Finnikin of the Rock would be from many of its counterparts in the genre.

Many contemporary Young Adult fantasy books feature strong female protagonists and characters. Yet in an effort to create vulnerability (flaws) and/or romance, at least one male character must feature as stronger, more capable and/or more powerful, certainly more masculine. Another portrayal of a strong female character isn’t really all that female, shedding her gender roles and feminine appearance in favor of the realm’s more “plausible” figure of a hero; this may or may not include sexual aggression. In an effort not to subvert their own feminist leanings, the end of the novel may include a romance-denied. She favors a ride off into the sunset alone. Or there is some necessary emasculation of the dark, smoldering, and unaffected who is suddenly on his knees begging declaring his undying devotion to this goddess who was right all along (who can tire of that image?).

Marchetta writes a different feminist experience.

There were many times while reading Finnikin of the Rock where I wondered if it was mistitled, where I felt it should be called Evanjalin of the Mount. Evanjalin is such a tiresomely stubborn character, all-knowing, all-powerful, petulant, and conniving—it was a wonder why she saw Finnikin as more than just a tool. Her ire over Finnikin having sex with whore seemed to come out of nowhere. Marchetta is surely a better story-builder than that?! Yet, as in any typical world-building scenario, patience is required, even if the author propels the reader with a periodical quickening of the pace and pulse. Like Jellicoe Road, Marchetta will reward the reader, but those who are not willing to wade through probable confusion and frustration will set the book aside. Marchetta builds complicated characters. They are her worlds she is building. The characters would not only be developed and spared cliché as much as possible, but they have to be consistent. They are wonderfully and frustratingly consistent, even as Finnikin of the Rock would play with the idea that one might not be who we think they are should be.

The novel begins with our conduit: Finnikin, who is exceptional (good genes and determination; well-resourced; fated for greatness). He is also haunted and terribly conflicted. As with all the exiles of Lumatere, he harbors guilt, dwells in regret.  But since he comes from a position of privilege, he has responsibilities, an added weight and an added motivator. He is our guide (and a bit of an avatar). Though quite logical, making decisions from intellect rather than emotion, he is not wholly separated from the magic of his youth. What initially appears logical, is still hard to explain, when Finnikin and his companion Sir Topher head to the edge of the realm at a Priestess’ summons; which sets the story in motion.  Finnikin and male company are pieces moved beneath the direction of women (and girls). The powerful Forest Dwelling woman Seranonna curses Lumatere, but also makes a small “prophecy” of Finnikin beforehand (which of course complicates matters). After meeting Evanjalin, she unabashedly takes the lead—and by whatever means necessary. She is certainly a character determined to do things on her own terms—at least, as long as is possible. Most of the women in Finnikin of the Rock are like Evanjalin in that they are determined to live by their own terms. Many suffer at the hands of men, but they refuse to stay down. They are resolved, and empowered.*

There is a benefit to using familiar social systems when creating worlds in Fantasy. Less work, one. And you can set out a patriarchal system and proceed to criticize, subvert, invert, whatever, in relative safety. Rare is the feminist take that imitates the gender roles, the physicality, psyche, expectations, the lore, ideologies, while it simultaneously redefines and reinforces them. (no, the oxymoron is not so readily apparent).

In Finnikin of the Rock, what it is to be female is not denied, nor viewed as weakness or source of shame; at least not by the women; and not by the text, which holds the perspective that says a female is already born powerful and she has always held a place of honor and importance in the human race. The physical differences as females are used as a seat of power: menstruating, birthing. So are the roles, expectations, and affiliations: traditional roles as figures of earth lore, hearth, and community, compassion, spirituality.

Marchetta creates possibilities for her readers in the familiarity of the human and cultural conditions. She does not devitalize either gender by stripping them of their sexuality or home or mother in order to model power and self-possession. It is in those sources where their true strengths lie. Indeed, when they are stripped of these is when they are viewed as vulnerable. The Lumaterans are exiled. Marchetta would bring them home and heal all that has been stripped of them, give them a new beginning in a historically significant place. They would give them back what they have been denied.

So the women in Finnikin of the Rock are substantial, but they are not without need or desire of men.

“It seems to me that you hate all men.”

“Never presume to know my needs or who warms my bed! And if you believe it is men I hate, you are wrong. I despise those who use force and greed as a means of control. Unfortunately for your gender, such traits are found more often in the hearts of men than women.” (388)

A good feminist read, in my opinion, is where the males are not made to suffer literarily as women have in order to empower female characters. Both genders wrestle with place and pride, but not the degradation of nature or role. It feels healthy to argue it out, and healthy to portray both sides as equally foolish and equally respectable.  But of the males, it is perhaps Finnikin of the Rock who has the greatest uphill battle; “a motherless son,” as he is referred to.

Though Finnikin is not inexperienced with women, he is the most ignorant of the males represented (at the beginning). This is in part due to his formative years spent without a mother figure in the home where men dominated the landscape (the Guard/Sir Topher, the First Man). He wasn’t raised in the matriarchal section of Lumatere with the Monts, or the Earth-lorish women of the Forest Dwellers. He didn’t have a woman, whether mother or sister in the home who bled monthly. He was held in a world of men that didn’t talk about such things, where grown men blush when menstruating is mentioned. He doesn’t firstly consider that a family might sacrifice their daughters to swift execution so as to not leave them vulnerable to a sexually tortured existence. When the question of who would be killed to punish the living offender, he answered, “male.” Fortunately, he is curious and he retains information and tries to learn from error. The text doesn’t deride him, Finnikin is its champion. Finnikin is the one who walks between the past and future, the children and adults, the men and the women, the irrational and the rational.

I’m not sure it is in spite of, or because of Evanjalin that he is so likeable. Just the same, Marchetta finds a resolution that honors both of her strong protagonists. She doesn’t sacrifice the one gender or person for the sake of the other. And her solution doesn’t just come out of nowhere. When it comes to outside expectation and inside self-definition, Finnikin of the Rock is saturated in the exploration. It is embodied in the title. Finnikin who is of the people of the Rock of Lumatere, the son of the legendary Captain Trevanion. Finnikin who becomes an advocate for the Lumateran exiles, who is fated, destined, who embodies much more than a singular dream of a farm or apprenticeship. Finnikin who has his own ambitions, own view of himself.

Expectation (Fated) is not a conversation limited to the gender of the character. In any individual, expectations have nuances: birth placement; social status; education; coloring; physical, emotional, intellectual capabilities… In Finnikin of the Rock, characters encounter countless suppositions within every prescribed nuance. Necessarily assumptions are investigated; through exploration, ideas of malleability are reinforced into the defining. Does being a male member of the Guard mean you are heterosexual? (no.) Does being a wife and mother imply that you are not actively involved in politics? (hardly.) Can a role or expectation be interpreted in an un-usual way and still not violate the purposed role/expectation?

Marchetta takes advantage of her writing venue. Like many a good Fantasy, the prophecy, the directions in how to break the curse on Lumatere, is suitably vague. Interpretations abound as to what Seranonna actually meant. How is risurdus translated? Who is the risurdus? Who will be what? Do they even want to be who they will be?—or expected to be.

If one wants to be who they are expected to be, what might stand in their way? I suppose it seems absurd a question. If you are expected, fated to be something/someone in particular and you want to be that person, why wouldn’t you? Say that there are people who would support you every step of the way and makes certain all comes to fulfillment? Finnikin of the Rock doesn’t find the question absurd. Beside the presence of Perspective and Interpretation, people need to be able to choose who they are.

[Finnikin] shook his head bitterly. “The gods make playthings of us, but I would like to have some control over the events of my life.”

“Have you not done things according to your own free will, Finnikin?” the priest-king asked. (310)

In Finnikin of the Rock, cultural expectation and self-definition, fate and free-will, they require two hands, more than one side. It’s hardly simple. There is great risk and courage and sacrifice. But there is real possibility. I like a novel with an empowered female, Fantasy genre or no. A reader may or may not want to be one of them, but an escape from limitations/restriction in reality is usually a pleasurable afternoon read. Rarely do they fuel possibility; that perhaps within the structure of our own society (person or culture or family), we might be spared self-loathing in order to pursue empowerment, escape oppression. Readers are encouraged to consider all their advantages, maybe even the very ones others might consider a disadvantage.

Who you are destined to become and who you choose to become is woven with the question of what are you willing to fight for? “We live. […] We want to live and we do anyfing to make that happen. That’s the difference between us and others.” (258) Froi is ethnically a Lumateran, orphaned and with no memory of Lumatere when Finnikin identifies him. When asked, he has no investment in Lumatere, his interests are purely survival of self. There is not a land or a people he is willing to die for. He understands that a choice exists, is inherent, even if others might not readily see it. Just because he is born one something doesn’t mean he has to honor it, nor does he have to honor that which is expected of him—it could or could not be more fulfilling, but he is conscious of having a choice. His guides would show him what they think the best way is (0ut of love), but in the end it is Froi’s decisions that fulfill or deny—to an extent. There are the inescapable (whether greater Beings and/or circumstances, or personal and very real limitations).

Evanjalin or Finnikin or other has a responsibility given and/or felt. How might they take ownership of their future, of their bodies, of their spirit? Unlike Froi, what does it look like to put others interests before your own and still find joy and satisfaction with being yourself? When aren’t you inextricably linked to another? (was that question comforting or a threat?)

The heroes, the strength in the invincible characters that manipulate the course of the story are not interested in morphing into something/-one other (assimilating), but in finding themselves, becoming whole and fully realized.—this seems to occur in the presence of a loved one or in a community beautifully enough [sorry, rugged individualism]. If something would be denied them (whether male or female, man or woman, boy or girl), they will find a way to deal with it without compromising that which means most—Life. Becoming who they were born and re-born, dreamed and re-dreamed, interpreted and re-interpreted, over and over, to be.

In order for choice to hold hands with fate or expectation, Marchetta offers other visions of plausible outcomes to the reader. Finnikin of the Rock does not reassure the reader of the most romantic outcome. In novels where the twist is that the female protagonist rides off into a future adventure alone, there is still often a trace of promise in the imaginings. I think it is a savvy author who allows the reader to imagine her heroine reuniting with her lover or even finding a more worthy one. For Finnikin, within the purview of the story’s pages, clearly presenting more than one possible interpretation of a good future to each (central) character is necessary to honoring both the male and female protagonists equally. (I would not limit myself to Finnikin and Evanjalin here.) Marchetta doesn’t send one on a downward spiral, demonize them, in order to clear the field or promote another character’s worth. She is frustratingly hopeful and fair with each of her central characters. Each work out their own way individually or in community (via advice and debate). Their most desired future/fate may depend on another, but if that other would deny them, they would still determinedly move forward. With their priorities firmly set, their desires and their life within their grasp, they make use of time and human resiliency. There is no doubt that regardless of the grieving involved, each character would find happiness. But Marchetta is kind enough not to leave us wondering, not on one important point anyway. After all, there is the need on the part of the people of Lumatere (and the reading audience) for Finnikin to finish his journey. He would guide us to our destination; which is a look at what a male might look like as a man of Lumatere–and what a female looks like as a woman.


* But then, so are the men. It is lovely. Must be a human trait.

4 thoughts on “upon this rock i will build…

  1. I loved Finnikin of the Rock. There are so many beautiful passages in this one. I highly recommend reading all of Marchetta’s novels.

  2. Fantastic review, and one that has left me greatly intrigued me; I want to read this book. I am very curious about how this one will read for me so I have just added to this book to my to-read list.

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