Well, color me green, and say I'm from Mars, because this is one of those books that leaves me feeling like an alien among other readers on this little blue planet.
As in, even though I loved Jellicoe Road, the appeal of Finnikin of the Rock eludes me. It was sort of like an interminably long car ride where just before you crest the next hill, you think, "This is it, my destination is on the other side," and then, bleh, just more endless landscape. Here, "endless landscape" can be substituted with a cloying Mary Sue character and repetitious storyline.
The story in a nutshell: Finnikin once lived in the happy-shiny country of Lumatere, where he rubbed elbows with Prince Baltazar, Princess Isaboe, and Lucien, a noble relative. Finnikin kept such exalted friendships because his dad is/was captain of the king's guard. One day, he and the other three boys make a vow, in blood, to protect and serve the royal family. Now, ten years later, that vow seems rather in vain, since the throne of Lumatere has been taken by a usurper, who slaughtered all/most of the royal family, and is merrily raping and torturing the few people who still live in the country. A racial minority known as the Forest Dwellers took the brunt of the carnage, and their leader/queen cursed the entire kingdom, trapping everyone remaining in the country within its borders.
Finnikin, who escaped before the magic wall went up, is traveling the lands beyond Lumatere with his mentor Sir Topher, gathering data, a kind of census, on Lumatere's exiles, when a messenger tells him to go to a convent and find a young woman named Evanjalin. Evanjalin purportedly knows the location of Prince Baltazar. Evanjalin has supposedly taken a vow of silence, but alas, doesn't actually honor said vow.
As in, once she starts talking, the story develops some serious suck. Or maybe it's more like that horrible hissing sound on a bicycle tire that strikes when you're miles from home and your cell has no reception.
There are numerous little things that irked me about this novel, but frankly, the standout fly in the ointment is Evanjalin. She's the Mary Sue who doesn't have the good grace to at least die (or at least stay dead) at the story's end. She's rather like a Joan of Arc, as in consumed with her glorious mission to the point of being one-note, self righteous, manipulative and utterly charmless.
I've read some reviews that call her kick-ass, but...uh, no. Mostly, she engineers and manipulates situations that make everyone else go into kick-ass mode. A good chunk of any scene she's in is usually devoted to reiterating how much she has suffered, how small and frail, how pitiful she is. But brave...she's brave...because...
Early on she betrays Finnikin, getting him sent to a rape-y prison/work camp. This is part of her grand plan for forcing Finnikin's dad (captain of the guard), also a resident of this prison, to escape and lead the Lumatere's exiles back home. This establishes her pattern for the remainder of the book, she lies and manipulates, Gandalf-style, but without the charm and cool pointy hat, supposedly in the service of making Lumatere the happy-shiny kingdom it once was. It never occurs to her to say, "Yo, guys, I've got an plan; here's the deets." Instead it's like she suffers from paranoia, and is pathologically incapable of leading others without deceit. *Cough* Sociopath. *Cough*
Thing is, I often love tricksy, manipulative, obnoxious characters, if -- IF -- they bring something else to the table along with all that guile. Preferably a sense of humor, wit, or charm. I find it interesting that female characters, unlike males, when cast as the anti-hero, are rarely allowed to carry on with a gleeful twinkle in their eye. It's like, a dude can totally be an asshole and enjoy it, but us women? We have to suffer for our use and abuse of power. (Old school, female Disney villains often were gleefully malevolent. Unfortunately, their grabs for power were usually nothing more than an over-blown attempt to be forever young.)
And oy vey, does Evanjalin suffer. In fact, whenever anyone (read: Finnikin) calls her on her behavior, she usually plays the "I've seen things, horrible things, so I'm immune to criticism" card. The insinuation is that she is so very noble, but if you think about it, she's actually an insufferable brat who insists on getting her way at any cost. No compromise.
Of course, Evanjalin's martyred attitude is made more intolerable by the fact that everyone around her enables her psychosis, essentially behaving as though she is a goddess who poops rainbows and calorie-free Oreos.
Complicating matters is the romance between her and Finnikin. Nothing he ever does is acceptable as far as she's concerned. I half expected her to start critiquing the way he breathed: "Your inhalations aren't filled with enough zeal for Lumatere." Their relationship is joyless and their dialogue argumentative. This isn't fun, witty banter concealing sexual tension, because there's no wit or underlying sense that the two characters really like each other. This seems to play into some sort of adolescent belief that a woman can (or should) remake a man into what she wants.
I've been married nearly twenty years, and while there are days I want to wrap my fingers around my husband's neck and squeezed till his eyes pop out like one of those rubber, stress relief dolls, I've never snipped and sniped at him the way Evanjalin does with Finnikin. That's because I like my hubs the way he is. If I hadn't, I would have married someone else, because why spent your life trying to change another person?
Ugh. Enough ranting....
Point of fact, I expected to love this book; I expected to want to marry it and have its adorable little babies. So, yeah, color me disappointed.
Two stars rather than one, because to the novel's credit, I haven't hated a character as much as Evanjalin in a long time. As in, it moved me, just not in a good way.