I just finished Finnikin of the Rock, by Melina Marchetta. I owe Sarah a huge, huge than you for the insane gushing she did about this series, because I must have started this book four times, and I would NEVER have finished it if she had not shouted it from the rooftops. Repeatedly. In all caps.
I've tried to read other Marchetta books before--I tried Jellicoe Road several times, and I had the same problems that I had at the beginning of Finnikin. It's not exactly an in medias res beginning, but there is a serious infodump right out of the gate. In Jellicoe Road, there was the main character's mysterious background and her complicated relationship with her school and with her teacher who is also by the way missing and then there are all these other characters who I think are in flashback but who are they and I don't know--what?
Finnikin is the same. You start out with a happy kingdom and Finnikin and his friends and family. That lasts about three pages. Then the five days of the unspeakable happen--the kingdom is invaded, a bunch of awful stuff happens, half the population is ejected and there's a magical barrier around the kingdom and BAM--ten pages in, it's ten years later.
Marchetta doesn't so much do worldbuilding as she dives in with two feet, as though you already knew all this stuff, so there's no point in telling you any of it. And there's so much of it--so much about the politics of the kingdoms and the family and friends of the main characters and how everyone's spent the past ten years and and and....it's just a jumble. So I couldn't get a handle on why Finnikin was so cranky, or whether Sir Topher was weak or just wisely measured.
And for a while, it seemed like a bunch of random things happened. Finnikin had a dream, and then there was this girl at the convent, and then they're going somewhere. And I'm not sure why, or what they'll do when they get there, and then some random things happen, and characters are introduced. This is all the part I read several times, because I kept putting it down for ages because it made no sense.
You know, it reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter, in that I had very little idea what was going on, and just basically went with the flow. For a while it's like surfing--you just let the wave take you. Eventually, though, I find that sort of thing gets old; if I can't connect to the action, I can't care about it enough.
And this is where Finnikin came through for me. I think the point where I really started to get it was just after Finnikin and Evanjalin became friends, when Finnikin went to the mines. It's such a huge reversal, but that section is the part that really turns all the Lumaterans into real people for me.
Because really, this book is about home and family, and what makes your people yours, when all the easy and practical stuff is stripped away. The Lumaterans have been living in exile for ten years--in refugee camps, integrating into other societies, wandering. Their passion for their culture, their homeland, their lost families--it's absolutely overwhelming, and the connection that just their nationality and experience of exile creates is so moving. I won't spoiler, but I love that the last scene takes place in a crowd, because it's not just Finnikin's story--it's everyone's story
The sequel is Froi of the Exiles, and I've already put it on my kindle. Sarah tells me Finnikin is good, but Froi and the third book, Quintana of Charyn, will KILL ME. I believe her now, and I'm a little afraid. But in a good way!