Froi of the Exiles is 593 pages and despite the length, I read it in just a few days. Covert reading at work, at home behind my family's back and late through the night helped me finish this in just a few days. Really, I had no choice, the book consumed me; it compelled me to keep going and keep turning those pages (or clicking "next" on my kindle). My reading experience was akin to hanging off of a cliff and having no idea if rescue was coming or if the ground below me was close.
What is it about Melina Marchetta? How does she continuously create the magical and emotional reading experience that I go through when I read her books? Why is this book so special? Jellicoe Road by Marchetta, is one of my favorite reads of 2011. Froi of the Exiles is definitely one of my favorite reads of 2012. However, disclosure - I was not a fan of Finnikin on the Rock. I listened to the audio of that book and was bored during most of it. While I liked the characters Marchetta created in Finnikin, the book did not grab me at all and only the high reviews for Froi of the Exiles made me want to continue. I am so glad I continued; reading Froi of the Exiles was one of the most powerful reading experiences I have had so far this year. Having read these three books by Marchetta, it seems obvious that she is incredibly gifted in writing stories and imagining worlds to write about but, I have noticed in each of these three books she makes use of certain plot devices to unfold her stories and create tension. A main device Marchetta employs - - and did so effectively in both Jellicoe Roadand Froi of the Exiles - is the keeping of secrets and leaving characters floundering in the unknown. Characters have their secrets, their painful pasts and choose not to disclose information to other characters even though it is clear that other characters are suffering due to the lack of information. Characters are kept in the dark, intentionally by other characters and thus, the pain and suffering is increased from the desperate need for missing information. This plot device could be very frustrating and irritating, especially once it becomes obvious. A lesser author could not carry this device off. But Marchetta is such a genius at crafting her story that it is not frustrating or angsty. The story unfolds, readers likely know before the characters do where everything is headed, yet she does it such an artful and entrancing manner I could not look away.
Froi of the Exiles is a character driven drama within the structure of a fantasy novel. Marchetta cleverly creates a historical fantasy world that is rich with its own history, music, religion and myths. She creates a political plot line that twists and turns and is intriguing to follow. But that is just the set up and the structure; ultimately, the book is about the characters and the characters move the story forward. I do not know how else to describe this story but to say it is raw; it is so raw that the characters are bleeding their emotions all over the pages. The history and facts leading up to Finnikin of the Rock, which is #1, and Froi of the Exiles, which is #2, involves years of war, starvation and the events that often surround both war and starvation. The characters each have their own painful histories to overcome and those histories control their present actions and choices. I feel like many movies and many authors write horrific pasts or events into their characters' lives and then have their characters miraculously overcome these painful events and they all march toward a satisfying happy ending by the conclusion of the story. This is not what happens in Froi of the Exiles. Froi is a dark dark book about tortured individuals deeply affected by war. Marchetta brilliantly puts her characters in situations that shows how scarred they are and how difficult it is for these characters to move past what has happened to them. Not to say there is no progression, because that is not the case at all.
Case in point the character Froi is virtually unrecognizable from the Froi in Finnikin on the Rock. Three years have passed since the end of the first book and Froi is now educated, literate and disciplined. To say that I disliked Froi in the first book would be an understatement. I had my doubts as to how Marchetta could possibly redeem a character who had attempted to rape someone. But she did; Marchetta redeems Froi in such a way that he becomes one of my favorite literary characters. Froi's attempt at raping someone in the first book continues to haunt him throughout the second book. It is not simply explained away by a violent past; it is not explained away by his being "saved" by Isaboe and Finnikin. It is a ghost that haunts him, that he has nightmares about and which shapes his behavior.
Could this tale have been told in a swifter manner? Yes, maybe the text could have be tighter and perhaps there could have been less wandering around by the characters. I am not sure if the story would have been better in the end, though. Marchetta takes her time with Froi's tale and with the side character stories involving Lucien, Beatriss, Traveneon, Finnikin and Isaboe. There is quite a bit of traveling and smaller struggles and interactions that lead to larger confrontations. It seems that through these stories, their wanderings and struggles, Marchetta is showing the effects of war and violence on the individual and on nations. What struck me is that there is no true evil or bad "side". At the end of Finnikin on the Rock, we leave the Lumatere tale believing in an evil enemy. But what is learned and developed through a slow but steady progression is that there is not one true evil actor; instead, there are gray areas and that arch evil enemy lying across the border is likely suffering from its own internal issues. Yesterday's victim can become tomorrow's bully. Marchetta demonstrated this theme with smaller interactions - for example with Beatriss's daughter being verbally attacked by a neighbor child; however, Beatriss later learns there may be more to the story than just her daughter and herself being singled out. Again and again this was stressed, one person's foreign is another person's home; one person's strangeness is another person's comfort. The struggles the characters go through and the small progressions inch by inch (page by page?) of the story arc is worth the 593 pages because Marchetta's message is so strong and beautiful.
Froi of the Exiles is marketed as a young adult novel, but it reads like an adult novel to me. Some of the characters are 18, some are in their twenties and quite a few are in their forties or older. There is sex in Froi; characters experience, as demonstrated in very well written scenes, strong sexual desire. Additionally, there is graphic violence and systemic rape which is remembered as to multiple characters.
If, like me, you were not thrilled with Finnikin of the Rock, I can almost promise you that you will be in love with Froi of the Exiles. I strongly recommend this book for people who enjoy dark stories or character driven tales.
Warning!!!! Froi of the Exiles ends with a cliffhanger and the sequel will not be released in the U.S.until March 2013.