Melina Marchetta! Chronicles of Lumatere! Part two! Froi! Yes, I was pretty excited to read this one. With three (? check my math on that) starred reviews, and a real affection for Finnikin of the Rock, I was ready for a fabulous read. And I did enjoy Froi as a personal read, just for me, but I’m not totally convinced of its contenda-ness for Printz Purposes.
As you might recall from Finnikin, order has very recently been restored to Lumatere; only three years ago, Finnikin and Isaboe were able to break the curse on their homeland and retake their land from the evil king of the neighboring country Charyn. Froi was an important part of that story, and is now a member of the Lumateran guard with a gift for languages. He is training as an assassin, and heads off to Charyn, where he’s expected to kill the evil king. The country of Charyn has suffered under a terrible curse of their own — no one has born any children for the past 18 years, and the land and people suffer from their barren condition. Froi finds an altogether more complicated situation, however, and killing the king becomes the least of his problems, as he meets the emotionally unstable Quintana and confronts the truth of his own past.
This is a second book, and the plot might be easier to understand (or it might be easier to be patient as a reader) if you’ve read Finnikin already. Generally, however, it does stand alone — Marchetta wisely set most of the action in Charyn, which means that even if you can’t immediately recall Lumatere’s past, you’re picking up new — and far more relevant to this story — information from Froi’s journey.
All of the things you’d expect from a Melina Marchetta novel are here: complicated, broken characters, passionate love stories, epic story lines, a story that provokes huge and melodramatic emotions. The major characters have traumatic, terrible pasts — Froi’s existence on the streets, Quintana’s abuse, Lirah’s and Gagarin’s broken love story, Arjuro’s and Gagarin’s horrible boyhoods — all are carefully handled and bring pathos to the story. These damaged characters are broken but not hopeless, and by working together to understand their shared histories, they begin to find healing.
Charyn’s descent into chaos gives another opportunity for Marchetta to shine. As the monarchy collapses, the city suffers; Marchetta does a terrific job of illustrating the adversity the capital of Charyn experiences. The difficulty Froi and his companions have tracking down Quintana brings tension to the story. The political maneuvering Bestiano employs to try to control the street lords and palace guards adds another layer of complexity and politicking to the story.
However, while Marchetta does a nice job with the high level politics, there are times that things feel too simple. de Lancy’s character is too perfect, for example, and has too much power. It’s hard to believe that all of his people are trustworthy, that no one at the Palazzo will betray the fugitives when they stay there. Tariq’s nobility is similar; it was a very simple solution that allowed Quintana to remain safe and alive. (Hmm, now I’m feeling quite blood thirsty; Tariq obviously suffered greatly, and I don’t mean to discount that. And Quintana’s life has been anything but simple and easy…but in a story so messy and violent, that twist felt a little too neat.)
The prophecies — in this book and in Finnikin, though that’s not an official part of RealPrintz conversation — are another weakness. The actual magic of this fantasy world is too perfectly and too clearly resolved. Quintana is either pregnant or not (and, spoiler, of course she is); there’s no ambivalence, no ambiguity. Froi’s role in the prophecy is too easy to predict, too. For the high fantasy world that Marchetta is trying to create, things need to be more murky; she has such high stakes — kingdoms might fall, monarchies are collapsing, entire populations are cursed, the characters are tortured by suffering — so it seems unbalanced for the solution be so clear.
Another fantasy bug — the various countries could use more nuance. The denizens of the different countries don’t seem to live and breathe beyond their country stereotype. With major characters so carefully delineated, the descriptions of the other countries feel too simple. Froi meets the people of Turlan and can totally, intimately understand them and their culture after a single night? Since our heros are already experiencing intense difficulties, these easier moments contrast too much with the other parts of their struggles.
In the end, Marchetta is writing high fantasy, and she is not doing anything new or different with the genre. This doesn’t have to be a problem; not everyone has to subvert genre conventions/break rules/blur types. But it does mean that your tropes have to be tight — as close to perfect as possible. Although this is a strong read, these problems weaken Froi as a Printz contenda.