When Melina Marchetta began writing the Lumatere Chronicles she was the mega famous award-winning author of social realist smash hit young-adult novels Looking For Alibrandi and Saving Francesca. So a richly imagined other world fantasy was somewhat of a departure from her genre. Or was it?
At the 2008 CBCA NSW Lady Cutler Award dinner Marchetta explained how and why she’d made the leap (apparently a few people had asked). She said she wanted to write a story about a dispossessed people, to examine what it is really like to lose everything from your home to your family and your language and to lose all hope of getting any of these back. She wanted to write about this very real experience without the facts obscuring the reality.
As a gobbler-upper of fantasy, and a passionate humanitarian I was so impressed with her rationale that I immediately bought and devoured the book. It was good, but not Harry Potter good. Marchetta acknowledged that she was not a reader of fantasy, and that she had not studied the masters in preparation for writing the book, a mistake some may say. I thought it was a social realist commentary on the plight of refugees set in a fantasy world. Great concept, but in execution it lacked a little . . . a little oomph.
But I’m a sucker for swords and magic, so when I saw the second installment Froi of the Exiles at my library I had to borrow it. And thank god I did. It was mesmerizing.
It had the two elements that Finnikin of the Rock lacked: a bad guy and a sense that the author really, really loves her characters warts and all.
Finnikin sort of had a bad guy, in that the imposter King caused all the trouble, but he was not actually in even one scene. (Oooo oooo! I just had a brilliant idea! Melina Marchetta can write a prequel starring the imposter king and the royal family pre-massacre. That would be good!)
Anyway, let’s compare Finnikin to up to almost the end of The Philosopher’s Stone in which Voldy wasn’t really in most of the book. We still had direct conflict with the villain in the form of Snape – see how clever JK is! So back to Froi of the Exiles, and we have a villain. Who? Well I say it was Froi, in the castle with the . . . Well, what was his weapon: His ice cold heart? His superiority complex? The dagger he was sent to use on the Charynite king ? I’ll let you decide.
In Finnikin of The Rock we met Froi as an utterly detestable street urchin, thief and rapist. Not a very nice guy, but Evanjalin saw something of worth in him and through this relationship we understood the mysterious novice better.
However, Froi was always so much more than a tool for Evanjalin’s character. For Chapter 19 of Finnikin, Marchetta changes the tone of her narrative, allowing Froi’s voice to be heard. Perhaps it is this, along with his haunting explanation “I just wanted a poke” that makes Froi such a memorable character. If you have read my earlier post you will know I refer to Froi as a character you have to love. This brings me to my second point about what makes Froi of the Exiles an incredibly compelling read.
The main characters of Froi and the “half-mad” Charynite princess, Quintana are deeply, deeply flawed, but as a fellow school teacher I can understand why Marchetta loves them so dearly. The characters in the second installment seem so much more real than they did in Finnikin. Perhaps all the questioning and doubts that people had about Marchetta’s fantastical experiment hamstrung her storytelling somewhat, but I am so glad that she persevered. The social realist aspects of Finnikin needed to be told, and in that she was hugely successful. But Froi’s story of a dispossessed youth also needed to be fleshed out.
What Marchetta is very cleverly doing in this series is explaining the myriad of difficult complexities that are part of being a refugee, the realities we have become immune to from watching it on TV every night. The Queen and Finnikin, and everybody in the whole of Lumatere love Froi, but they all know he has a very black heart and even he knows he cannot be fully trusted. There are millions of young men like Froi on our streets and in our schools around the world. These youths have seen things beyond our wildest reckonings, and yet we are so ignorant as to pay a civil servant to come up with policies such as teaching them to wait patiently in lines.
But, thankfully, Froi of the Exiles is much more than a morality tale. As much as I loved Saving Francesca, I wonder if Marchetta has found her calling as a fantasy novelist even more so than as a social realist. I just had a look at Melina Marchetta’s website and I must agree with all the reviews here. It seems that she has taken up reading fantasy novels, and this shows in the richness of her world making. I also read that the third book is to be called Quintana of Charyn. This is interesting because although the first two books were given the titles of the male lead characters they were in fact the unravelling tales of the female leads. Marchetta explains that it is obvious why she could not write from Evanjalin’s point of view and it is true again of Quintana. Will we lose some of the magic of these multi-layered female leads if we read the story from their point of view? Perhaps this will be the story of Lirah, or Phaedra that is beatuifully and unbotrusivly revealed in the final novel? I’m not sure, but I do trust Marchetta to surprise us. And I just can’t wait to see what happens when Isaboe and Quintana meet head to head – it’s gonna be awesome.