My third #aww2012 review – Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta

My third review for the AWW2012 challenge has come quite a long time after the second one, but I have two excuses.

One, I’m pregnant AND renovating; and two, I had a bit of a block because I both wanted and didn’t want to write this review (much like my previous attempt at a third review for the challenge). I wanted this review to be more positive, so I stalled; but now I’ve decided I really had better get this all out of my brain, because I can’t stop thinking about it.

Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta, came as a big surprise to me, when I found it in a remainder store; I don’t know how I managed to miss that the author had moved into the fantasy genre, but I had a quick look and nabbed a copy, having both loved Looking for Alibrandi as a teen and liking a good bit of YA fantasy.

It wasn’t what I expected.

I did enjoy reading it. But it was kind of the way I enjoyed the Avengers movie; I liked it well enough, but I was also unexpectedly disappointed by it. Both failed the Bechdel test for a start, which I was dismayed by, since both Melina Marchetta and Joss Whedon have a good track record for writing strong female characters and relationships.

None of the women portrayed in the story seemed real, at least in the first half or so of the book. They were all tropes; nuns or witches or noblewomen. And Evanjalin, the only major female character, is very one-dimensional for a fair chunk of the book (maybe the first third or so?). I guess Marchetta represented her that way because she’s a bit of a mystery to Finnikin, our hero, but most of her actions, independent as they are, seem there only as plot devices. I suppose that’s better than things happening to her to drive the plot, but still.

And the blokeyness of the story, as a separate issue, eventually got on my nerves as well; it’s all prisons and military settlements and male bonding. And Finnikin has a bit of a problem with women, seeing them as being there for his respect only if they are in a position of authority and there for his amusement if they aren’t. He flirts with the young noblewomen (but only the “sweet” and “refined” ones), enjoys a trip to a brothel and he initially dismisses Evanjalin as a simpleton, resenting her presence even as she seems to offer him and his mentor an opportunity that they have been desperate for.

I don’t know if Marchetta was going for more of a “boy’s” book, since she’d written several “girl’s” books previously, but I don’t see why there needs to be gender segregation in either (or why there should be a distinction between books for girls or boys). I guess I’ve been spoilt this year, reading Alison Croggon’s Pellinor series, which is refreshingly set in a society where men and women work together as equals and — even more shockingly — are friends. Where a mentor can be someone of the opposite gender and sex doesn’t need to come into all relationships between men and women. So much fantasy is patriarchy porn, I guess I was mostly just disappointed that a female writer I admire so much had fallen into it a bit.

But there were also non-feminist things that I didn’t love about Finnikin of the Rock. Some of the dialogue, particularly in the first few chapters, was very stilted and not at all natural, as though Marchetta couldn’t quite work out the voices of the characters and just wanted them to say certain things to communicate plot. I also had trouble with how earnest parts of the book were (I kept waiting for a punchline that didn’t come, cynic that I am).

But there was plenty in there to enjoy; I liked the relationship between Finnikin and Evanjalin in the end, and I liked the whole world and the landscape that was created, I found it very richly detailed and believable. There are more female characters in the second half of the book, too, which I appreciated.

I think I would probably like it better on re-reading, now that my expectations have shifted. I think I brought Looking for Alibrandi baggage to my reading of it — a story that spoke a lot to me, being a half-Italian Australian with an infuriating nonna in tow — and that’s not fair.

But, months after reading it, I’m still conflicted.

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