Source: borrowed from a friend.
Genre: MG fantasy.
Maresi came to the Red Abbey when she was thirteen, in the Hunger Winter. Before then, she had only heard rumours of its existence in secret folk tales. In a world where girls aren’t allowed to learn or do as they please, an island inhabited solely by women sounded like a fantasy. But now Maresi is here, and she knows it is real. She is safe.
Then one day Jai tangled fair hair, clothes stiff with dirt, scars on her back arrives on a ship. She has fled to the island to escape terrible danger and unimaginable cruelty. And the men who hurt her will stop at nothing to find her.
Now the women and girls of the Red Abbey must use all their powers and ancient knowledge to combat the forces that wish to destroy them. And Maresi, haunted by her own nightmares, must confront her very deepest, darkest fears.
One of my resolutions for this year was to read more non-English books. I decided to count this one despite the fact that I read it in English – it’s a Finnish original (translated by Annie Prime) and as I can’t read (or speak) Finnish, reading a translation was the only option.
Maresi is a really interesting middle grade fantasy. The story is told by a girl (whose name is Maresi, go figure), a novice at the Red Abbey, which is a temple to the Great Mother built on a tiny island that’s nearly impossible to reach. No men ever set foot on this island, all the Sisters and the novices are women. Some of the novices are daughters of rich men who send them to the Abbey because it offers a spectacular education. Some are fugitives from horrible conditions. But all are equal on the island and welcome to learn as much as they can.
Maresi loves to study. She is the happiest when she gets to sit alone in the library, reading all the books and the records of times past. I liked her both as a character and as a narrator, her analytical mind, honed by studying old texts, is childish (she’s thirteen, I think, at the beginning of the story) but well-organised. It’s been a while since I read a similar narration (a report of events written in the first person) and I enjoyed it a lot.
The plot takes a while to take off. I kept waiting for something to happen and then realized the entire “introduction” was a slow, measured way of easing me into the characters’ stories, the ways of the Abbey, the religion and everything that goes with it. It might not be for everyone – especially if you’re used to epic fantasy where things go bang a lot – but it worked just fine for me.
I also liked the examination of different cultures through the eyes of the girls who come to the island. They all come from different cultures and don’t know anything about each other’s habits, so explaining how things – especially gender roles (!) – work is something that was done tastefully and realistically enough that I wanted to know more about these cultures.
I didn’t know the book was the first part of the series until I checked it out on Goodreads – after I had already finished it. So it works okay as a separate installment, I found the ending satisfying enough for it to be a standalone. But I heard the sequel is awaiting translation, so I’ll definitely be checking it out!
Have you read Maresi, by any chance? How about other Finnish books?
Do you like a slow start to a novel or do you want to land in the middle of the action?
I’d love to hear from you! :)