I feel just awful about this, but I don't love this book. I love Melina Marchetta. This is the fifth of her books I've read in way less than a year, which is unusual for me. I just don't go on that kind of binge that often. This book has a lot of the hallmarks of her fabulous writing: a large, well-differentiated cast of characters; quick, smart characterizations; lost children, found parents. This should be a slam dunk for me, and yet...
Froi is a secondary character from Finnikin of the Rock, an exile picked up by Finnikin and Isaboe in their quest to return to their homeland, Lumatere. Ten years earlier Lumatere had been invaded and cursed, the royal family slaughtered, half the populace trapped with usurpers, the other half in a brutal exile. Froi is a troubled child - and I think we have to remember that he's a child in Finnikin - growing up parentless on the streets, a thief, a would-be rapist. He's rough and sometimes brutal, but not without feeling. He finds an uneasy place in Lumatere in the culmination of that book, training to be a soldier, managing his growing guilt and shame over past actions.
We meet him three years later in this book. I love that Marchetta has taken on a character as problematic as Froi. On some level, he's not dissimilar to Tom from The Piper's Son with his wordless rage and confusion. But Froi is more damaged than Tom with his living, grieving family. Froi is an orphan, a child soldier, a street kid impressed into the unspeakable. He's had three years and some incredible tutelage to try to learn how to live in the world, with people, but his sense of society is still shaky and difficult. And his Lumatere, his found homeland, is still suffering and grieving from the years of exile and occupation. He is sent on a mission to Charyn, the invaders, to assassinate the king. It's not exactly the most ethical of missions, to put it lightly, and it's not surprizing that this mission goes completely to hell.
The sections in the Charyn capitol city worked for me better than later events. It's a slow, confusing unravelling, almost Gothic in sensibilities. There are twins and twins, and a dangerous, claustrophic castle, and a mad princess. Charyn is suffering from a curse as well. I can't tell if this is a spoiler, even though I'm pretty sure we learn this pretty early on. Still. There hasn't been a baby born in 18 years, since the birth of the damaged princess. Because of the usual prophecy, it is understood that Quintana will break the curse, and the crown, her father, has more or less whored her out to that end. It's major yuck, and I like how messy and confused Froi's actions are, but this is where I start to have problems, as a reader.
I have a tumultuous, often rancorous relationship with fantasy, and high fantasy more specifically. Often my problems resolve down to issues with world-building: there is too much godamn world building. Quit telling me about some crap that happened a thousand years ago, or the specific rites of this one town, or whatever. I have very minor complaints to that end here, just in the sense that there are too many locations, too many peoples. But my main problem is more conceptual: I don't think that a people who haven't seen a pregnant woman or a baby in this long would behave like this. There's some nice scenes with Isaboe's child on the edges of the border, but what is up with the way the average Charynite deals with Quintana? I've been ignoring the sloppy magic in these books, because rigorous and complex magic isn't the point. I'm willing to accept sloppy magic in the service of well constructed societies. But when the society stops being as well constructed? It just stops feeling for me. I start turning into that critical bitch reader who, um, is a critical bitch.
I'm not proud of this, but this is where I am with this book. I have other quibbles and praises I could go into, but there's probably nothing to be gained from it. Sometimes I feel weird about the review process, like my individual emotional response, or lack thereof, is so personal to be useless. I'm still on board for the culmination of this trilogy, and, on the balance, I think this book worked more for me than it didn't. Sorry, Marchetta. I still love you.