I love bestselling author David Baldacci’s adult thrillers, as do millions of others around the world. They always feature complex people, Byzantine plots that give me whiplash, and they move at lightning speed – what’s not to love? I did a bit of a double take when I learned he had written a YA dystopian fantasy novel, The Finisher; however, luckily I learned long ago that it’s a serious mistake to pigeon hole an author into one tiny genre box. Once I picked up The Finisher, I literally could not put it down until I finished it and I predict you won’t be able to either. This novel is going to appeal to all ages so don’t let the YA label fool you in the slightest. I’ve been dying to share it with you and, even better, kick off a giveaway for it that one of you will win! Score!
Fourteen-year-old Vega Jane is an orphan Wugmort, living in Wormwood where Wugs have always lived, along with her younger brother John. Well, they’re not strictly orphans because their parents are still alive but only barely since they’re lying in a coma-like existence in the medical center.
Like most Wugs, Vega Jane is dirty, worked almost to death, and is always hungry. It probably doesn’t help that she saves as much of her meager food as possible for her growing brother to eat when he’s done for the day at The Learning. John is the only family she has left and she’s responsible for him. He’s brilliant but not suited to the life they have to live so she does her best to keep him safe and to feed his ever-growing body.
Vega Jane works at the Stacks, where she was trained as a finisher of beautiful objects by Quentin Herms, an old family friend. Quentin was kind and patient with her so she owes him much. Of all the work she might have been assigned, finishing suits her and her work gives her pride. Quentin taught her much and took great pride in his work. That’s why what happened was so astonishing.
Wormwood is the only place the Wugmorts, a.k.a. Wugs, have ever known because bordering Wormwood is the heavily forested Quag and everyone knows it is filled with monstrous beasts. No one even goes near the Quag because to do so means a certain horrible death – but Quentin did. In fact Vega Jane actually saw him run straight into the Quag early one morning while being pursued by the Council’s hunting dogs, one of which almost attacked her. Nothing that happened that morning made any sense to her.
Quentin was a very smart Wug and would never have gone into what he knew meant certain death – unless he knew that not going there meant certain death and possibly going there didn’t mean the certain death they’d been taught to believe it did. But none of that made sense – and another thing everyone knew was that, even if you somehow miraculously made it through the Quag, there was nothing on the other side of it. What could be so horrible that Quentin would face what everyone believed was certain death to avoid it?
As these thoughts began to tumble through her head, Vega Jane doesn’t know it but she’s beginning to not think like most Wugs. She owes Quentin a lot and she is very fond of him. Something is very much not right with this situation and what the Council is saying about it – none of that agrees with what she saw and knows about Quentin. She’s determined to discover why he was being chased and why he would do such an unbelievable thing, no matter what. If she had only known how extreme “no matter what” could become…
“Krone came forward, the other Council members in his wake. He held up an object. When I saw it, my breath caught in my throat. I recognized it immediately, though I had not seen it for many sessions. I wondered how Krone could be holding it now.
‘We meet again, Vega,’ said Krone as he and his cohorts encircled me at my workstation.
‘Yes, we do,’ I said, trying to keep my voice steady, but it wobbled badly, like a very young testing out his new legs.
He held out the object in his hand. It was a ring. ‘Do you recognize this?’
I nodded. ‘It was my grandfather’s.’ It had a distinctive design etched in the metal that matched a mark my grandfather had on the back of his hand. Three hooks connected as one. I had never known what it meant and he had never talked about it, at least with me, but I had been only a very young when he had suffered his Event.
‘Can you explain how Virgil Alfadi Jane’s ring came to be found in Quentin Herms’ cottage?’ Jurik Krone asked patiently, but there was a definite edge to his voice.
I shook my head, my stomach doing tiny flips and my lungs expanding faster than I would have liked them to. ‘I assumed it had vanished along with my grandfather when he had his Event. As you know, there is nothing left of a Wug after an Event.’…
‘Let us speak frankly. You were near the Quag at first light. You saw us chasing him.’
‘I told you. I saw nothing. And you didn’t tell me who you were after.’ I looked up into Krone’s face. ‘But why were you chasing Quentin?’
‘There are laws, Vega, laws that Quentin Herms has broken. And for that he will be punished.’…’If he tries to contact you, you will inform Council immediately. The consequences for not doing so will be harsh. This is a serious matter, Vega. Very serious indeed.’ He paused. I am speaking of Valhall for those who disobey.’
Every Wug there, myself included, drew a sharp breath. No Wug wanted to be locked up in that cage in plain sight and guarded by the brutish Nida and the ferocious black shuck.”
As Vega Jane digs for clues while avoiding the authorities’ prying eyes, she finds a cryptic note, a book about the beasts in the Quag, and a map of the Quag. But that’s not all she finds; in addition to magical artifacts she also stumbles onto information about Wormwood that bears little resemblance to what everyone is taught. What if Wormwood hasn’t always been the place it is today? What if the Council has been lying to the Wugs of Wormwood all these years and, if so, why would they do that?
The more she digs to find the truth about Quentin’s escape, for she knows now it was an escape, the more dangerous her life becomes. From mean-spirited, small-minded, spiteful Wugs with too much power to creatures inside Wormwood that shouldn’t be there to Council members with hidden agendas, Vega Jane is soon dancing on the edge of a sword to evade her enemies with Quentin’s escape into the Quag making more sense all the time. Will she survive the ever tightening net surrounding her long enough to find the truth?
Vega Jane is one of those people who has the ability to see through BS and straight to the truth once her eyes are opened. She’s a kick-butt heroine who won’t let anything stop her from learning and possibly exposing the truth – and I do mean anything because she runs into things that would cause a lot of people to curl up into a tiny ball in a dark corner. Yes, she’s a fellow The Emperor Has No Clothes person and I’d like her for that if nothing else. I didn’t say much about John above but he actually is brilliant; however, he’s young and easily manipulated – no spoilers so I won’t say how. The villains in this tale are predominantly people trying desperately to protect a decaying and unsustainable status quo, and don’t see themselves as villains just like in real life. Most of the characters are as fully drawn as they are in Baldacci’s adult thrillers, so we get a really good sense of Wormwood through their perceptions.
What if you lived in an oppressed society that didn’t even realize it was being oppressed? What if one young person suddenly opened her eyes and saw what was really around her? What would the leaders of that society be willing to do to stop her? That, my friends, is The Finisher elevator speech in a nutshell. David Baldacci has brought all of the masterful expertise he gained writing his adult thrillers to this dystopian fantasy thriller – and it shows on every page. This is a fully built-out fantasy world, so the dystopian piece is subtle instead of bonking you on the head like a hammer. I can hardly wait for Book #2 in this new series because I have to know what Vega Jane does next! You guessed it, I’m highly recommending this one for teens and adults (and tweens who are advanced readers).
Along with a few other book reviewers, I was privileged to talk with David Baldacci about this novel and one we’ll be reviewing next week. Below are excerpts from that conversation about The Finisher.
Q: In your books, female characters are as tough as men and then some. I’m thinking of course of Vega Jane in your young adult novel. Why so many strong women in your pages? Why is this something that interests you?
A: I don’t write about damsels in distress because I don’t happen to know any. I have a lot of guy friends that need a lot of help and not so much the women. I grew up with a force of nature in my mother. And I’m married to a force of nature with my wife…
Q: Did you have the idea to write fantasy first and build the world around it, or did you have an idea of a fantasy world that drove the plot and the genre you decided to tackle?
A: The Finisher was really a passion project for me…I wrote down the name, Vega Jane, and I knew she was going to be the lead character but I didn’t know what she was going to be doing. It took me over four years to finally figure out the world I wanted to place her in, what her role would be, and what the total story, plot, and narrative would be [as well as] the other characters around her. I knew I wanted to create a new world. I did a lot of research into that because, in The Finisher, a lot of the terms and references come from mythology, classical works of fantasy, religion. I wanted to build the world in a smart way. For instance, the jabbit – the giant serpent in the story – is based on Persian mythology. In their mythology, it’s called a dabbet but I thought jabbit was a much better term. It seemed like something a snake would do. In putting the world together, I tried to do it as meticulously and carefully as I could. I didn’t create a huge world and address it superficially. I built a small world, a village and a Quag around it, with a limited number of characters, but I gave great depth to everything I wrote about.
Q: You just said you’ve been working on the second book for The Finisher. I’m wondering if you have a timeline for when you expect that to come out. Do you see it being a series, a trilogy, or…
A: The sequel to The Finisher will be out in September, 2015. It may be out at a different time overseas but it’s scheduled for September, 2015, in the U.S. I definitely see this being at least a four book [series]. Because in my grand plan, I know the sort of things Vega Jane will have to do. What I expect her to do in the series will take at least four books, [with] these major movements that I have planned for her. Now that the second book is done, I’m really looking forward to jumping into future ones.
Q: It’s a very visual book. My thought [while reading it] was that if a film company doesn’t jump on this, they’re crazy.
A: Sony Columbia bought the film rights for The Finisher. And I met with the screenwriter in New York a few weeks ago. She’s got a really good vision for the script, and Sony is very high on it. It’s kind of interesting, working with that process to see it translated to the big screen.
Q: Another thing that is particularly interesting to me is that you chose to write a fantasy novel…You’re beloved for your thrillers and known for kind of owning this one genre, and then you wrote something completely different, a young adult fantasy novel.
A: Well, as a kid growing up, I read a lot of fantasy and I’d always loved that. And I’ve always felt that a writer who doesn’t stretch sort of withers on the vine. So, for me, it was a challenge to get out of my comfort zone and write in a genre and in a way that I’d never written before. It took me five years to do this book, and four and a half [of those] years was sort of banging my head against the wall to get the story, characters, and everything right so I could really sit down and write it the way I wanted to write it…As a writer, you get better when you do something different…You know, I’m prolific because I’m just a kid. I’m a seven-year-old boy looking at a blank piece of paper, exercising my imagination. That’s really what I do. And I call it a job, but it’s really not.
Q: The world gets more and more digital and sometimes people say, “Why are books so important? Why are people reading stories?” Why do you do this [family literacy foundation] work you do?
A: I think I was a library rat as a kid. And we’ve always had stories. Humankind evolved around stories…so, we are a race and civilization that grew up with stories and we love stories because [they] communicated a lot of things from one generation to the next. I’ve always considered libraries the foundation of democracy. You walk into a building filled full with books but it’s really filled with ideas and diversity of opinion, and things that are very important in a free and open society. It really doesn’t matter how people read…What matter is that you read. [The Wish You Well Foundation] funds literacy organization programs in virtually all 50 states and counting, and will continue to do so…We also have a book collection drive…called Feeding Body and Mind. We are partnered with Feeding America, which runs all the nation’s food banks. We collect books during my tours, and then ship them to food banks across the country. People going in to seek food assistance tend to have low literacy skills. Sending them home with books is always a good thing, and we’ve shipped out over a million books in the last four years. The web site has information on where to send books. Feeding Body & Mind deals with the book collection effort.
Can’t wait to read The Finisher?
The Finisher was published in the U.S. on March 4, 2014, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). That means the instant gratification of a great read is just one click away – so go get it now!
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One lucky reader will win a finished hardcover copy of The Finisher by David Baldacci!
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