Are heroes born or made? Do our parents’ position in society and belief system determine how much we will achieve in life and what faith we will embrace? Should we blindly accept what our culture teaches us as gospel, or do we have the right and responsibility to challenge its doctrines and think for ourselves? These are just some of the thought-provoking questions raised in “The Finisher,” bestselling author David Baldacci’s enjoyable, first full-fledged fantasy novel for middle-grade readers.
Baldacci, predominantly a suspense novelist for adults, whose more than 110 million books in print have been translated into 45 languages in 80 countries, is merely the latest in an ever-lengthening line of successful writers who are penning dystopian works for the burgeoning youth market. With “The Finisher” he proves that he is more than capable of switching genres as he spins a tale that is both well-written and intriguing.
The book begins with a scream and a nightmarish chase scene as the main character, 14-year-old Vega Jane, sees one of her good friends, Quentin Herms, disappearing into a dangerous and mysterious region called the Quag after escaping from attack canines and black-robed Council members. Although obviously disturbed by this, Vega resumes the rather dismal but normal routine of her existence in a small community where she is near the bottom of the pecking order. Vega is a finisher, a person who puts the final touches on a variety of objects that she is told will be sold in Wormwood’s shops or, as we see later in the book, will be used in construction.
Of course, on her salary the goods she produces are largely unavailable to her. as are almost all of the luxuries of life. She struggles just to have enough money to provide for her and her younger brother, John. But Quentin’s disappearance has set in motion a chain of events that will completely change Vega’s life and the lives of those she loves along with her perception of her world and culture. And, ultimately, she will be forced to choose between conforming to what she has always known or braving what was formally a perilous and unimaginable future.
Vega is a strong and instantly sympathetic character. Despite having several strikes against her, she has managed to hold her head up in a society that devalues her because of her sex and economic status. She is resourceful, unafraid to stand her ground against those who would bully her, and incredibly smart and analytical even without the benefit of an extensive education. The first clue we receive about how well she thinks on her feet is when she senses not to reveal all she saw when questioned by Jurik Krone, one of the pursuing Council members, just a few moments after Quentin bolts into the Quag. While she is often impetuous, this quality is tempered with an inborn caution that serves her well throughout the book.
Vega is not the only interesting character Baldacci creates, although she is certainly the most developed. Others, such as her best friend Daniel Delphia, Council leader Thansius, the enigmatic and powerful woman Morrigone, and Vega’s boss at the Stacks, Domitar, are all intriguing in their own right. What makes them stand out from most of the others, though, is how Vega’s perceptions of them alter over the course of the book. This also exemplifies one of the story’s themes: the danger of judging others based on initial impressions or their position in society.
Thematically, “The Finisher” is a goldmine. Baldacci explores the importance of thinking for yourself, examining your beliefs, remaining true to your principles even when pressured to abandon them, and so on, all of which are good discussion topics for groups or families who might be reading this book together.
In comparison to so many other books for youth on the market these days, it also has relatively few worldview issues that Christians might find problematic. There are some minor references to the occult, such as fortunetelling and sorcery. However, there are also strong hints that these may be fakery and that the magical elements of the story, while numerous, could possibly be attributed to some pseudo-scientific forces that have not yet been revealed. Additionally, while there are a couple of brief moments of titillation and sensuality, there is no sex nor even the hint that it would happen at this stage. Vega is not perfect and does resort to lying, theft, and forgery at times in her pursuit of what is right, yet she refuses to back down on her own moral code, which includes always keeping her word. Other issues include public drunkenness, some minor (but understandable in context) mockery of ecclesiastical authority, occasionally graphic violence, and some profanity, although it is generally mild and consists almost exclusively of British terms.
Overall, “The Finisher” is an engaging and thought-provoking book that is filled with bizarre creatures, suspenseful situations, powerful objects, a touch of romance, and fantastical occurrences. While some reviews have criticized the book for its lack of innovation, Baldacci by his own admission has deliberately included numerous plot devices and references to other classical and fantasy works just for fun. The result is an entertaining read that sets itself up well for a sequel.
Image copyright Scholastic Press. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.