Melina Marchetta is a beloved, award-winning Australian author. I remember loving Looking for Alibrandi when we studied it in high school, and when Marchetta turned her hand to fantasy, I was thrilled! I read Finnikin of the Rock, the first book in her Lumatere Chronicles, a couple of years ago, and finally got the chance to continue the tale with Froi of the Exiles this week:
Froi’s still learning what it is not to be alone, to have people you can rely on, and who truly care about you. Queen Isaboe and King Finnikin are the first family Froi has ever had, and he can’t imagine caring more fiercely about anyone. He’s spent the three years since the Queen and Finnikin reclaimed Lumatere training to be an assassin, a fighter, someone who can defend those he loves. When a man from the despised neighbouring Kingdom of Charyn comes to the Lumaterans with an opportunity, Froi is willing to take up the quest. His task is to impersonate one of the Lastborn – the final generation of children born to the Charyn people before a curse rendered the entire Kingdom infertile. As Olivier, he will infiltrate the Palace under the guise of trying to break the curse by impregnating the Charyn Princess, Quintana, and when inside the Palace walls, he will assassinate the King and Princess.
Loyalty to Lumatere aside, something else drives Froi to Charyn. Blood sings to blood, and something about the cursed Kingdom calls to Froi. It draws him closer than is wise to those he meets, embroiling him in new loyalties that may come to challenge those he holds for Lumatere. Gargarin, the former Royal Advisor, is a shadow of his former self, bitter and broken. Yet he retains a stubborn seed of hope for the future. His twin brother, Arjuro, was once closer to Gargarin than to anyone else, but time and betrayals have left the brothers with little trust in each other. Their relationship is uneasy and fraught with old pain. And there’s Quintana, the Princess. Despised by her people, called mad, cursed, useless, Quintana’s life has been nothing short of miserable, consisting of visits from Lastborn men who use her to try to break Charyn’s curse. Froi’s task becomes less straightforward as he finds himself drawn into Gargarin, Arjuro and Quintana’s lives.
Melina Marchetta writes an ambitious sort of fantasy, rich with conflict and convoluted motives. Her characters are fascinating, because they can be so unlikable – Quintana, for example, is a force to be reckoned with. I spent the first third of the book torn between disgust and disinterest when it came to Quintana. Her moods and attitudes were so unappealing. But a character doesn’t need to be liked to be powerful – they must simply be understandable. We can forgive a lot of unpleasantness in people if we can appreciate why they are the way they are. By the end of the book, I liked Quintana a little more, but more importantly I was irrevocably invested in her well-being.
Marchetta’s approach to characters is something I appreciate for two reasons: firstly, because it makes them more real – these are just people, with their strengths and flaws. They are not perfectly crafted two-dimensional vessels for a vapid fantasy tale. Secondly, the story is not contingent on the reader’s liking the characters. I’m not denying that identifying with the people you’re reading is important, but in this sort of story what’s more so is that their world is falling apart, and they are the only ones with any hope of salvaging it. In this case, the reader’s sympathy is for the land at large, rather than just in one heroic main character. I want Charyn to be okay. And over the course of this book, I began to respect these prickly people for their dedication to the same cause, and because of how much they were willing to give. By the time I had to say goodbye, I was as devoted to Gargarin, Arjuro and even Quintana as Froi had become – and that’s one hell of a character arc.
Froi of the Exiles handily avoids the all too common curse of the middle volume, wherein the book is nothing more than a placeholder filling in time before the real action takes place in the final book. Rather, Froi’s instalment is packed with plot development that is a contained adventure in itself as well as one that advances the overall series at great speed.
Have you discovered the wonderful Melina Marchetta? Have you ever found characters you don’t love (at first) in series you adore?