You can read the first book of the trilogy, Finnikin of the Rock, as a standalone, but these work best as two halves of a single book.
Trigger warning: The book has a lot of abuse (sexual and non-sexual) in it.
Three years after the events of Finnikin, former Lumateran exile Froi is sent into the royal court of neighboring country and enemy Charyn. As he's there, he's intrigued by the despised princess Quintana and quickly entangled in really messy political stuff.
I'm not sure these books are better than Finnikin, as Finnikin has much better pacing and structure, but once I finished both of them, I'm pretty sure I like them even more. If you thought the topics of healing (both individual and country-wide), instutionalized violence and abuse, found families, war, and making peace were difficult in Finnikin, they are even more so here. Ditto the proliferation of really awesome women, and I was incredibly happy to see a gay character with a canonical gay romance.
I am really glad we got to see more of the Charynites, given their role in taking over Lumatere, and I liked that Marchetta both doesn't demonize various Charynites but also doesn't give the entire country a pass either. It's clear that the king and many of the people in power are responsible not only wreaking havoc in Lumatere, but also in their own country as well, and just as we see various groups and factions in Lumatere, we do in Charyn as well. There are the people in the court and then the outsiders of the court, as well as the various Charynites in the valley between Lumatere and Charyn.
I also kind of love just how fucked up the Charyn royal court is, particularly when compared to the old royal family of Lumatere. The way everyone treats Quintana, despite her supposed role as the breaker of the curse and her role as prophet, and how she really is frightening and terrifying and offputting and not easily packaged for the reader to swallow. I had previously really loved how Marchetta had written Ysaboe and how absolutely not nice she was, but wow, she really goes for broke with Quintana!
I am also so glad that Isaboe and Froi both have never really forgiven him for his attempted rape of her, and that it's not something to be swept under the rug or forgotten, particularly given Quintana's extremely disturbing sexual experiences. I also liked the addition of sexual trauma for some of the men as well, not as a "but think about the menz" way, but more in a ... fucked up abuse that goes with war and living in constant trauma way, particularly given the bits about fathers protecting their daughters by killing them first in Finnikin.
There is a lot about parents and children in these books, from Froi discovering his actual parents and both loving and resenting them, to Quintana and Isaboe's pregnancies, to of course the Charynite curse. I am usually very wary of the whole "oh noes we can't have children" storyline, largely because it's so easy to reduce women to their wombs and their reproductive functions. I think Marchetta managed to sidestep a lot of these issues, largely by showing exactly how damaging searching for a way to break the curse was on Quintana, and I liked how the loss of children was a trauma for both men and women in the series. I'm even more glad about the presence of Vestie and how Trevanion accepts her, along with De Lancey's adopted sons, as evidence that children don't have to be your blood kin to be yours.
That said, Arjuro and De Lancey notwithstanding, this is such a straight book, particularly given the focus on reproduction. I really wanted more queerness in it somewhere, particularly because we get Gargarin and Lirah, then Perri and Tessadora, Finnikin and Isaboe, Beatriss and Trevanion, Quintana and Froi, Lucien and Phaedra, and just... so many het couples!
Not just that, there's a weird whiff of gender essentialism under some of the books that bugs me. I do actually like the focus on men's spheres versus women's spheres, but sometimes there are comments about how men cannot understand xyz or, particularly in romantic relationship talk, the men bond with each other over how they are not quite comprehending the women and vice versa. It is nowhere near as bad as a LOT of books, but since Marchetta usually is much more nuanced, it struck me as a bit odd. The parts where Finnikin is running around trying to make sure Isaboe is okay during her pregnancy reminded me a lot of the fussing scenes in Anne Bishop, which is... not a comparison I had expected to make.
There's also a lot of jealousy present in the romantic relationships, which bothers me. I was hoping it would just be an element of the Finnikin/Isaboe relationship, but instead it's there in nearly all the major romantic relationships, and I don't actually find it completely in character for all of them. The jealousy between Finnikin and Froi in particular felt like it came out of nowhere, especially since it's prompted by Isaboe saying Froi's name in her sleep when they are all worried his dead. WTF, Finnikin, WTF?
That said, the awesome women continue to be incredibly awesome, with Quintana topping the list for me. She is just so feral and so broken and so terrifying and terrified, and her and Froi press all my "they are both broken, but he's broken just a bit less and he loves her for all the sharp edges" buttons even more than Finnikin/Isaboe do. I also absolutely love Phaedra and the women in the cave, and how Quintana throws dead rabbits at them and thinks they are all useless. And Quintana vs. Isaboe was the best.
The incredible tangle that involves two sets of twins, baby switching, babies' souls, and the curse is... very tangled. I am not sure it entirely makes sense or has the same emotional resonance that Seranonna's curse does. There's also an interesting switch in tone near the end, where the books go from being very dark and very much about abuse and the terrible things that happen to people to the reveal that the curse isn't an act of malevolence and the final reveal about Jasmina taking letters for their seals.
I feel like the last few paragraphs have all been about my quibbles with the books, but honestly, they are very, very good, and they tackle issues and do a lot of things that a lot of fantasy doesn't. Both books aren't paced nearly as well as the first book, but they cover a lot more territory and plot, so despite the unevenness, I like them much more. Definitely recommended.
Links (assume spoilers):
- skygiants' list of ways the books are a romantic comedy
Comment | Read Comments () | Link