Title: Finnikin of the Rock
Author: Melina Marchetta
ISBN: 9780763643614
Pages: 399 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2008. (originally published in Viking/Penguin Books (Australia), 2008)
U.S. Publication Date: Feb. 9, 2010.

As summer moved into autumn and the days grew shorter, Finnikin began to worry. He would tremble in fear when he remembered his dream. […] Until one day, finally, he convinced his companions to make a pledge.
And so they climbed the rock of three wonders at the crest of Finnikin’s village, and they cut flesh from their bodies and tugged a strand of hair from the weeping Isaboe’s head to make a sacrifice to their goddess. Balthazar pledged to die defending his royal house of Lumatere. Finnikin swore to be their protector and guide for as long as he lived. Lucian vowed he would be the light whom they traveled toward in times of need. […]
They were indeed blessed as no other kingdom in the land.
Until the five days of the unspeakable. (prologue)

Lumatere is an idyllic nation where the people of the five distinct areas — the Flatlands, the Forest, the Rock, the Mountains, and the River — live in relative prosperity. But that all changes when the royal family is brutally murdered in the middle of the night and a despised cousin assumes control and begins killing the inhabitants, causing mass exodus to neighboring communities. When the ruler of a Forest is burned at the stake, she summons a curse that seals the borders, and allows no one in or out for ten years. Locked out of the only home he’s known, Finnikin and his mentor wander the surrounding communities, trying to reunite the refuges. A mysterious novice in one of the temples swears that she has proof that the true ruler survives, and she joins up with Finnikin in a quest for both the former king and Finnikin’s father. Everyone though has secrets and ulterior motives, and Finnikin’s team might have to fight more than their common enemies as they learn who they can really trust in this world of double-crossing politics and favors.

Looking back at this summary, it’s probably one of my longer ones. But that’s because a LOT happens in this book. There’s wars and personal tragedy, famine, refuges, rape, slavery, and one big long exodus in search of a home. This book has everything, from fights to romance to mystery and magic. Everything in this book is beautifully done, from the creation of the world, to the politics of the neighboring communities and the multi-faceted characters.

Well… scratch that, because not everything is beautiful in this world. Evanjalin, the novice, is an orphaned refuge who has seen her share of atrocities in the last ten years. But honestly, I’m grateful that Marchetta provides just enough detail that readers are able to figure out what happens, but doesn’t get graphic in her descriptions. We learn that refuges were slaughtered in a bordering land. Readers witness the attempted rape of Evanjalin as she is assisted by Finnikin’s mentor, Sir Topher.

Sir Topher woke with a start. A muffled sound came from the corner of the loft. He listened for a moment, and when he was satisfied it was only Evanjalin tossing restlessly in her sleep, he closed his eyes with the same heaviness of heart he had felt these past four nights. Until he heard a scream, hoarse, as if the girl was fighting for air. He twisted out of his bedroll, and in the half dark he saw [someone] astride the novice as she struggled under his weight. Stumbling toward them, he heard the sickening sound of a blow, but before a second could land, he had the [man] by the neck and hurled him across the loft.
“Sweet goddess,” he muttered when he saw the girl’s face.
Clutching what was left of her shift, she gasped for breath as he placed a blanket around her shoulders. When he made an attempt to hold her, she crawled away, shuddering against the timber beams of their shelter. (89)
Portions of the text were removed to prevent spoilers.

But I think seventh or eighth graders could handle these things, even with the mature themes.

Everyone is clearly developed, and there are so many twists that you’d think Marchetta would leave something dangling, but she doesn’t. The crisscrossing plots are not only untangled but also expanded on by the end of the story. The characters have different motivations for what they are doing, and Evanjalin is probably the most complex of them all. Teens looking for strong characters should pick up this book. Not one of them is perfect, and all face some big decisions in their travels.

My one quibble is that the ending was somewhat predictable, but it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the story one bit. I was swept into the world and traveled from country to country along with Finnikin and Evanjalin. I read this book cover to cover in one day. I refused to put it down. And I think many readers will find themselves doing the same. This is my first introduction to Marchetta, who won the Printz Award for Jellicoe Road, and I am intent on reading her other works. This is a new favorite for sure.