The exiles return

Melina Marchetta is an Australian writer well known for her YA novels set in Catholic high schools (the wonderful Saving Francesca is a frequent reread.) She also won the Printz, a high honor for YA books, for Jellicoe Road, a book I found so sad that I haven’t ever picked it up for a second read. But in the last decade she turned her well-tuned characterization and plotting skills to fantasy, writing Finnikin of the Rock, my recommendation for your summer reading.

It is my contention that some of the best recent high fantasy is about trauma and recovery from trauma. Novels of wars between low-tech nations and their rulers are an excellent place to think about personal and social trauma; a writer can enlarge the boundaries of traumatic events so widely that it becomes impossible to think that these events would not have repercussions in individual characters’ lives. In realistic fiction and in our own lives it’s a lot easier to bury a hugely traumatic event and assume that a character is over it, but when the entire kingdom suffers we cannot. In fact, in Finnikin the movement from silence to speaking together about horrible experiences is an important narrative trajectory. I’m not saying that Finnikin is very dark, but it is about recovery. (Another excellent example of this is Kristin Cashore’s Graceling novels.)

When Finnikin opens we find the eponymous main character, a young man, on his usual pursuits: going through the land looking for help for his exiled people and for information about both the dead and the possibly living — could the heir survive? Ten years before, Lumatere, a small, peaceful kingdom at the confluence of trade routes, had been invaded by troops from the north. Lumaterans blamed a magic-wielding minority for their troubles and began to persecute them. In response to their cruelties, at her death at the stake the priestess Seranonna cursed Lumatere, shutting it off entirely from the rest of the world. Those who were able to flee the country were shut out, unable to contact their “lost beloveds.” An impenetrable cloud lay over Lumatere.

Finnikin’s self-imposed work is the keeping of the Book of Lumatere, recording who was lost — at the closing of Lumatere, in massacres at refugee camps, of the plague — and who stayed alive. He also has been working with the kingdom’s former head courtier to convince other countries to offer a piece of land to the exiled Lumaterans. But when they meet a young woman who says she knows where the heir might be, their plans have to change.

I particularly like that in this book, after what might in a more conventional novel be the ending, Marchetta makes us stay with the characters and learn how they move together toward wholeness, understanding, and — dare I say — happiness. (This paragraph made intentionally vague to avoid spoilers.)

The sequel, Froi of the Exiles, was published a number of years ago in Australia but is now available in bookstores here. I haven’t read it yet, so that’s what I’m recommending for my own summer reading.

Suzanne Fischer is a historian and writer who lives in Detroit. She cares about people, places, and things. Find her on Twitter as @publichistorian

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