Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Froi of the Exiles, by Melina Marchetta: Charyn't you glad it's got no froibles?

Froi of the Exiles, 
by Melina Marchetta
ARC from Candlewick, available 3/13/12

Three years have passed since Finnikin and Isaboe ended the Lumateran curse and exile and began rebuilding their country.  Now nearly 18, Froi has spent these years helping rebuild Lumatere and training with the Queen’s guard, both to mind his temper and to train to fulfill his promise to protect his queen.   Foreign relations are tense due to the long suspected role of Charyn in the Lumateran exile; to complicate matters, Charyn refugees are flooding the Lumateran valley on their border.  Fluent in Charnyite, Froi is given a secret mission infiltrate the desert country, impersonate a noble, and assassinate their king.  However, not even the trainings of the Guard could prepare him for what he discovers in the treacherous Charyn royal court.  Charyn has a curse of its own: no children have been born or even conceived in 18 years.  Charyn’s insane princess, Quintana, claims to be the only one to be able to break the curse.  However, Froi is strangely drawn to Quintana, who has become a victim of the curse, and to the Charnynite people, hesitating in his mission as his resolve to protect her and help Charyn find peace strengthens.  This wholly engrossing and beautifully constructed novel is filled with intrigue, dark humor, mystery, adventure, engaging new characters, and visits with old Lumateran friends.  More political thriller than pure fantasy, due to plot complexity and some sexual violence it is recommended to high school students and adults.   As a reader caveat, this novel ends on an excruciating cliffhanger! 

Hold your breath (or don’t is probably a wiser idea), because here comes a loooong review: 

Confessions:  I was a little perturbed when I found out that Finnikin of the Rock, of which I finished, closed, and thought “almost all the ducks were in a row and I feel good about these characters taking things from here and succeeding! DaYUM, what a great stand alone!” was actually the first in a series, and that Froi of all characters was going getting his own book.  I mean… Froi was a kind of fascinating but overshadowed character in Finnikin.   Hilarious and tragic, but occasionally reprehensible, he wasn’t always our (taking a page from the book and using the royal we here) favorite character.  But it is Melina, you guys! As in, author of several of my favorite books!  Though I had my doubts, they were more about Froi than Melina Marchetta’s abilities to write a stunning book.  After a reread of Finnikin, and particularly the chapter in which we hear Froi’s voice when the fever strikes Evangalin, I was MORE than excited to start Froi. 

Frankly, Froi won me over.  Both the character AND the book.  He’s come a long way from petulant, violent, impulsive thief to slightly impulsive, more mature, but kind of admirable wannabe-assassin.  If that doesn’t sound like an argument to not be a preemptive judger,  real live English major Lil’Miss Julia Hawesome ran south with my ARC, and had the following thought: “it fit with Froi's own journey and personality and darkness. There were times it was hard to reconcile Froi from Finnikin with Froi from this book, but I guess three years can do a lot for a person.”  Three years CAN.  For instance, three years ago, Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house and only Apple nerds had iPhones! 

You guys.  Just pause here for dramatic effect.  Pause… Because you know what?  I worried for naught! This book is kind of fantastic.  I take that back.  It’s not kind of anything but rather fully fantasy fantastic.  The characters, new and old, are all multilayered, richly constructed, fully flawed human beings.  The landscape is stark, hard, and dangerous, much like many of the new Charynite characters.  The plot is captivating; it’s really hard to put this one down (and it’s not a short book, clocking in at close to 600 pages). Even the slow moments are filled with bits and pieces of import to the story.  It’s a well-paced roller coaster ride, with ups, downs, breaks, laughter, tears, and the occasional desire to puke from over-excitement.  The dark side of humor, in that laughter can be based on sadness and cruelty but still be funny, enlightening, and cleansing is on full display in this addition to the series.  Charynites, despite their uber-rough country and messed up curses and royal court etc., are deeply, darkly, humorous.  In fact, in some ways what happens in this book (survival, family, bearing unwanted burdens, etc.) is darker and yet less sad than the exile in Finnikin, perhaps because our characters are not entirely at the mercy of fate in the same ways that the Lumaterans were. 

At times, it reads like a mystery as Froi works to unravel the layers of the Charyn curse; all is not revealed at once.  In some ways, we all suspect what he’ll wind up doing, but yet it’s not fully predictable in ways we would expect.  The chapters alternate between protagonists and kingdoms, with Froi as our main narrator, but all sides have their say.  Por ejemplo, despite the struggle of rebuilding their country and getting their lives back together, or say, dealing with a refugee situation of their own, I found it really refreshing to step away from the darkness in Charyn and visit with our old Lumateran friends.  I love that the tide has turned in ways, and now our exiles are the unwilling hosts who have trouble admitting to themselves that the Charyn refugees on their border are just like they were.  Pot, have you met kettle?

Author Crush:  I feel an author crush ramble coming on…because none of that has been going on here already...You guys, saying Melina Marchetta is talented is like saying ice cream is delicious.  DUH.  I’ve gushed before and will again in the future, but she really never fails to wow me.  How many authors can manage a story with as many plot lines and characters with related yet individual stories as Froi, AND keep the writing and story strong?  On top of that, how many can create a brand new major character, make her seem truly insane and undesirable, and then explain it in a way that makes sense without mitigating it, AND create sympathy, even affection and grief, when sanity is somewhat found for this new character?  (I know this makes little to no sense if you haven’t read the book.  Deal with it.  You know, by reading this book.)

Quintana or Smartypants?
New Characters:  Quintana is fascinating.  I loved picturing her in her pink taffeta dress, which stinks of a bad bridesmaid experience!  (If there is a snowballs chance in hell you are reading this, Melina Marchetta, is this hunch true? Also, totally unrelated, but will Jimmy Hailler ever get his story told?) I couldn’t help but think of Babette Cole’s Princess Smartypants when picturing Quintana.  And now thanks to that visually, you won’t be able to help it either!  You’re welcome.   Phaedra is also a character who I knew would be more than she initially seemed.  It was and will be fantastic to see her coming into her own role and authority with her people.  I also loved the twins from Abroi and their complicated history and relationship with Froi.

Australia's Froi cover
Cover Judger:  I think I initially wanted to say more about how the themes of family, loyalty, and doing the right thing run through this book, but I just did so I won’t gush on for another paragraph.   I will however, briefly talk about the cover.  LOVE the yellow and black because it’s sufficiently dark and twisty, but I’m not a huge fan of the fadey face picture.  Is that dude with an intentional pupestache wearing eyeliner?   Is Froi a pubescent emo rocker?  As covers go, I like it but I’m having trouble not comparing it to the gorgeous US hardcover jackets for Finnikin. You know, without the fadey people.  I actually prefer the Australian Froi original.  But that’s just me; it really is a decent cover.   

This book ends on SUCH a crazy cliffhanger, which is apropos to the gorges of Charyn.  But not to my desire to know what is going to happpppeeennnn!  2013 can’t come soon enough.  

Finally, a special thank you to Jenny at Candlewick for generally being fantastic (she arranged a tour for a group of my students) and for basically ensuring I'd have a great winter break by sending this along.  Yes, I read it poolside in Miami...


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