I don't think I'm ever going to be up for this review, so I'm just going to ramble. Two glasses of wine and the worst day for a while I've had under my belt, and maybe I'm up for some raw blithering.
There's a joke among SFF nerds that what makes a fantasy novel a fantasy novel is the maps. Open any fantasy novel worth its salt - and most of them not worth anything - and you will be confronted by a map of an imagined geography - rivers and towns, mountains and names. The land is a character - often the most important one, when you get right down to it. There's a lot of boring in Tolkien - oh hai, I've invoked him; how could I not? - but when he gets going about landscape, about the feel of the earth and the sense of history in the soil, you best go for the hankie. That's when he goes for your throat, if you have any throat to go for.
Here comes a digression. Many years ago I painted for an Episcopal priest who ministered to a parish in downtown St Paul. Because of the make-up of the neighborhood, many of the parishioners were Ethiopian or Somali, emigrants from the mixed conflicts and starvation that were going on in their home countries. Most were newish immigrants, only in this country for a few years, five at the most. He spoke one day to us about a funeral he had just officiated for an Ethiopian teen who was killed in a car accident. Like for most that die young, the funeral was packed, standing room only. But, said the minister, it wasn't just that he was young. It was also that this was the first member of the community to be buried on American soil. Until someone dies, and you have to put them in the ground thousands of miles from what you think of as home, you're just visiting. The dead are an anchor; their graves are what makes a country a home.
Ten years before the start of this book, the country of Lumatere suffered a violent upheaval - the royal family dead, an ugly reprisal of a religious minority, a curse on the land that cut the country off from its neighbors. Many are living in exile in a gossip of countries. Here's where my grousing comes in - the character of these outer countries is too fractured for me, too many, too unresolved. I like the idea of the complexity - this is no Manichean us-versus-them, no bother of a simple exiled experience - but the way the characters moved so easily from this country or that, all with their own languages and cultures which were only hastily sketched, I spent more time confused than was necessary. And, speaking of Tolkien, there was too much godamn walking for me to be comfortable.
So. Our Finnikin is the son of the (murdered) King's Guard who meets with a girl of unexplained occult power. She is hard and silent, the kind of girl I like to meet in my fantasy novels. They begin questing, circling one another, trying to find their meaning in this exile. Is our homeland with the dead, in the soil of exile? Or is it in the soil we ran from in those ugly days of upheaval? Should we even want to go back? I've said before that the power of fantasy is in nostalgia, and that is front and center here - the exiles evoking their lost homeland. But Marchetta is savvy enough to understand that nostalgia is often tinged with survivor guilt, so that evocation is in whispers. Do you remember? Do you even want to anymore? What good is memory?
I don't know if this is a spoiler, but I hide it anyway. They do return to lost Lumatere, and here's where the blood really flows. The people trapped within have been living their own exile, on their own soil, a catalog of horrors. I have a friend who builds schools in Ethiopia because he lost his fiancee, an Ethiopian, to a car accident here in the US, and I thought of him a lot while I read this. His love, and his loss, and the building and rebuilding he does in her name, in the name of girls just like her growing up in a country just on this side of the border from a conflict so ugly it doesn't seem like it's ever going to end. I don't have words for it. I don't even know what it is. It's a tale told in gestures, between people who have forgotten a common language. It's a hand holding a child's hand, a child who was born out of the worst thing there is. It's a country of the unspeakable, spoken.
Still. In stillness, I recoil from parts of this denouement. Although I don't know if that's just because recoil is part of the rebuilding game, or the realization of the horrors before. Love, can you mend this? I'm old and cynical enough that I don't think so - love is never enough, not by half. But, still, still, I find hope in these ashes. If love is enough to spur action, then maybe. Maybe. We shall see. At least we still have eyes for seeing, and the anchor of our loved ones buried in this country, and the ones outside its borders. Our homeland is exile and vice versa.