Here are five nonspoilery and five spoilery reactions to the book, with the note that this is all day-after-first-read first-impression stuff, and doesn't get into a lot of the things that I thought were the biggest issues of the text:
1. The writing is gorgeous, and the book is impossible to put down. When penmage told me that, I figured she meant it makes more sense to read it all at once, not that once you pick it up you can't make yourself stop reading. That is why I was up until 8 AM.
2. This is a big departure for Melina Marchetta: high fantasy instead of realism or magical realism; third person instead of first; male protagonist instead of female. I was pleased to see, though, that even though a lot of the main characters are male, this is not a story lacking strong female characters. And the fantasy is rooted in reality, the way all really good fantasy is. The world doesn't make perfect sense to me the way the Jellicoe one did, but I don't think it was supposed to.
3. This is a dark book. This is a really, really, really dark book, and as much as I loved it I am not entirely sure I'd recommend it to nearly as many people as I tried to push Jellicoe on. This is the story of an idyllic kingdom which is destroyed and cursed, and the book doesn't pull any punches. People are killed. People are enslaved. People are raped. Like Jellicoe, this is a story about ultimately finding a way back to a better path, but while Jellicoe was more emotionally wrenching, this book is more viscerally violent.
4. I've only read the first book in the Attolia series, but this reminded me of it a lot, and reminded me I want to read more of that series. I liked this better than I'd liked The Thief, actually, but I fully own that is largely because I am predisposed to like anything by Melina Marchetta, and this made me want to go back to read the Megan Whalen Turner books, so... good job? :D?
5. I'm back to wanting to decorate my walls with quotes from Melina Marchetta novels. As I was reading, I was remembering pages to go back and look at when I had time to go slowly, rather than devour the story.
6. Going back to #3 for a sec- this is such a brutal book. The description of what people do to the slaves- that's going to stay with me. I feel like this is the book I intend to hold up whenever people say that young adult books are less sophisticated. There's no graphic rape, and very little graphic description of the slavery, but there's just enough said- and more than enough implied- to make it really terrible. The narrative said so much that when there was something characters didn't want to think about because of the sheer horror, it hit home a lot. When characters who share a lot find things unspeakable, it says a hell of a lot more than when the narrative just artfully dodges.
7. I loved that they were the Five Days of the Unspeakable. It tied back to what Isaboe said: the people lost their voice, and with it they were losing their culture. Finnikin was trying to keep track of the dead, and Isaboe was helping them live. (I took a course in the Unspeakable at grad school, and today I appear to be pondering that entire course through the lens of this book. Have I mentioned I love when books make me think a lot? Because I do.)
8. Finnikin was a pretty good character. He's not up there with my favorite Marchetta characters, but I liked him enough. And Isaboe is a wonderful character, and from the second she showed up I was enthralled. As much as this is ostensibly Finnikin's quest story, to me it felt more like Isaboe's story told through the eyes of Finnikin. Part of me was irritated by the amount of male characters driving the narrative, but it's Isaboe who's at the center, and that made it okay. I love everything about her so much. Playing with the boys from the time she was little, figuring out how to get her entire country back together, GETTING her country back together. All the little details- she's the character I want to be when I grow up. At the end, with the realization that she was making herself bleed so she could rescue her people- I love her. I love her a LOT.
9. I figured out a lot of the twists here much earlier than the plot reveals, but I think that was kind of the point. Evanjalin being Isaboe occurred to me from near the beginning, and nothing contradicted it- er, obviously- but it wasn't one of those plot things where people had to be stupid to not pick it up, because most people did pick it up. Finnikin was blind with grief over his friend and wanted to believe Balthazaar was out there so much that he missed what was right in front of him, and plenty of people who realized who she was respected her wishes not to be identified. And that's why it hit me so hard when there was the realization that no, Balthazaar was really dead. I didn't realize how much hope Finnikin had put into that until it was crushed. And it wasn't til then that I realized how much I was actually invested in Finnikin's happiness. :D
10. The book is a roller coaster, with all the terrible fates and all the hopes and the ways they clash. Balthazaar really is dead. The royal family really was brutalized in every conceivable way and then murdered. But there are seeds of hope: the novices hidden in the two Cloisters, Finnikin throwing his dagger to end Seranonna's pain, everything about Isaboe. Somehow, the hope makes the brutality more harsh, but the brutality makes the hope stronger.
I cannot think of a better use of my snow day than drowning in this book.