My main focus at the library is children's services, but when I can I like to take a detour into YA and occasionally literature. My favorite author right now is an Australian YA author named Melina Marchetta. Her books are consistently heart-breaking, awe-inspiring, and just plain entertaining. Although she primarily writes contemporary, realistic fiction, she's also in the middle of releasing a fantasy trilogy. Or as I call them, books with maps.
And there's a bit of a problem because...
I don't read books with maps in them. Some people might call it high fantasy, I call it made-up geography and made-up names and it is simply not my jam.
Two years ago, when the first book, Finnikin of the Rock came out I had a conversation with myself that went something like this:
"Do you see that book? There's a big sword with a ruby on the cover. There is no way we are reading that.""But it's Melina Marchetta. She brought Jimmy Hailer into the world. I think we should read it.""The main character's name is Finnikin. FINNIKIN. No way, no how.""But it's Melina Marchetta. Do you not remember the territory wars in Jellicoe Road?""Dude, there is not one but two maps on the inside covers. Uh-uh.""But it's Melina Marchetta."
This went on for a while until it became apparent that nothing Normal Miss Lucy said would outweigh Fan Girl Miss Lucy's insistence on reading anything Marchetta puts out. And so I read it. I wouldn't say that Finnikin of the Rock made me a believer in high fantasy, but it sure did cement my belief in Melina Marchetta. That woman can do no wrong.
I went back recently and re-read Finnikin and there are a few things I think you should know about it if you, like me, are wary of books with maps.
1) The quest (which all map books inevitably have) really is an EPIC quest. Imagine your home has been ripped in two by a curse from a terrified and dying witch. Imagine you and over half of your countrymen have been forced to flee your country's boundaries while others remained, trapped inside behind an impenetrable black fog and ruled by an impostor king. The same impostor king who brutally murdered the royal family, every last one of them. Although. No one ever did find the body of the heir (and your best friend). Now imagine it's your job, your responsibility, your burden to care for your country's refugees and you've just met a crazy, silent nun who says she can take you to the heir and back into your kingdom. Frodo Baggins ain't got nothing on you.
2) Finnikin is way better than his name. I had a hard time getting over it too, but he's a really great character. At 21 he's brash, arrogant, thinks way too highly of himself and way too poorly of himself when things go wrong. Although he's lived a life of privilege, he has a huge soft spot for the refugees of his homeland and feels keenly responsible for their well-being. He misses his best friend terribly and the prophecy of an old witchy woman has been haunting him since he was 11. In other words, he's an actual person who was handed a lot to deal with very early in life and has fought through and emerged the best way he knows how.
3) The Bald Nun of Awesomeness. It might be Finnikin's book, but it is most definitely Evanjalin's story. This bald novice (they shave their heads when they enter the nunnery and then never cut their hair again as a sign of devotion) is probably the single strongest female character floating around in YA right now. Move over Katniss, Evanjalin is on a mission to bring her people back to their war ravaged lands and she'll do whatever it takes to get them there including, but not limited to, walking through people's sleep, straight up lying about her identity, selling a thief (who tried to rape her) into slavery and then buying him back again. Because even the most wretched of her people deserve to go home.
The second book in the trilogy came out this year and I wrote another list, with three more reasons, why this fantasy series is my favorite thing going right now.
1) This book is about the most interesting character from Finnikin of the Rock AND it introduces the most spectacular new characters in the history of new characters. Normally when there's a sequel to a book I love, I get annoyed when the author introduces a bunch of new characters. "I don't care about them! Tell me more about the people I loved the first time around, what are they doing now?" But Froi of the Exiles takes the most interesting and complex character from the first book, Froi (duh), expands him and gives him a cast of supporting characters so engaging that when the book does go back to check in on Isaboe, Finnikin and Trevanion I'm like "Hold up, what's going on in Charyn? Take me back to Charyn."
2) Charyn. Whereas Finnikin of the Rock was all about an exiled people trying to get home, Froi of the Exiles is about a cursed people trying to survive in a harsh and war torn land under the rule of a paranoid and all around bad guy king. I thought Lumatere got a raw deal, but I don't even think it compares to Charyn, a land that's basically only known in-fighting and civil war between ethnic groups for its entire history. There's also a curse (all good countries in this universe have a curse) and it's a doozy. No children have been born in Charyn for 18 years. It's quite literally a country with no future. Of course there have been predictions for how the curse can be broken, but nothing has worked. Yet.
3) The most awesomely botched, bumbling rescue attempt ever. I don't normally think of Melina Marchetta as an action writer. She's got the political intrigue, the swoon, and of course the grief down pat, but action? Still, there's a sequence in Froi of the Exiles featuring a poorly planned rescue attempt gone hilariously awry that had me laughing out loud and picturing how the fast paced action would play out on a movie screen.