Book Review: Ink, by Amanda Sun

by sketchyfeminist

A good alternate title for this post would be “What I Get For Judging a Book by its Cover.” Because just look at that:

The book cover of Amanda Sun's debut YA fantasy, Ink

The stunningly pretty book cover of Amanda Sun’s debut YA fantasy, Ink. Cover art by Petra Dufkova; interior illustrations by Ross Siu.

Have you ever wondered what you would get if you blended a bunch of paranormal teen romance tropes with a bunch of school romance manga and anime tropes and then wrapped them all up in a beautiful package? I now know exactly what you get (or, well, one of the things you can get) when you do this, because the other day I picked up Amanda Sun’s debut YA novel, Angst Ink. I meant to say Ink. (But I really did almost write Angst first, completely by accident. Not even kidding.)

Warning: some SPOILERS lie ahead.

Ink is about a teenaged American girl, Katie Greene, who is living in Japan with her aunt after her mother’s death. The book starts a few months after her move, when Katie is still struggling with integrating into a new culture and trying to overcome the language barrier. One day, she discovers that her moderately obnoxious, but handsome senpai (or upper-classman at her school) has a dark and intriguing paranormal secret.

So, she pretty much starts stalking him. In the book, he cracks a few “jokes” about how she’s his stalker, but … yeah, she’s basically his stalker. Which made me a bit conflicted, while reading, because I didn’t want to be rooting for a stalker, but dammit, this is not a plot-heavy book. For at least the first hundred pages, Katie stalking Tomohiro is the only way that the plot moves forward. So eventually I just rolled with it.

And then, of course, Tomohiro ends up loving Katie because she’s more-or-less his stalker and he can’t frighten her away, no matter how hard he tries to be off-putting. Ugh. Way to positively reinforce bad behavior, Tomohiro.

This paragraph SPOILS something that doesn’t happen for a couple hundred pages in, so be warned. And now that you know this paragraph is SPOILERY, I feel I should mention that it also warrants a CONTENT WARNING for unwanted advances. Eventually, Tomohiro decides he really, really wants to drive Katie away to protect her, so … he takes her to a love hotel. Where he starts to get pushy. As in, handsy. And he keeps touching her when she first tells him to lay off. And when he finally does let up, he insults her, and she runs away in tears. But of course it is all For Her Own Good. And after berating herself for a few pages for being taken in by his good-guy act and letting herself get into such a dangerous situation, she realizes it was all For Her Own Good, and berates herself for an approximately equal number of pages for being taken in by his bad-guy act and losing faith in him. Because it’s her fault both ways, see? Or at least she thinks it is, whether or not the reader is supposed to. (Ink is written entirely in first person.) Yeah, I almost gave up on the book–especially the Tomohiro part of it–right then and there.

The book’s paranormal teen romance tropes include: the heroine getting mixed signals from some moderately obnoxious dude with supernatural powers who wants her to leave him alone, but not really; he only pushes her away in an attempt to protect her from his dark side. There are others (like the single-parent family and the way almost every boy character of the appropriate age expresses interest in the main girl character), but that’s the big one. (And I will save the rant about how much I hate the “male love interest pushes female love interest away to protect her” trope for another post, because it would get pretty long-winded and probably derail this review.)

The book’s school romance manga-slash-anime tropes include: bad boys with dye jobs, kids with yakuza connections, sakura blossom viewing, karaoke with friends, a love confession interrupted mid-sentence, that moment when somebody pulls a fallen sakura petal out of the heroine’s hair and–my personal favorite–the main character climbing a tree and feeling all triumphant until she realizes the annoying boy she’s talking to can see up her skirt. (Yes, that is a thing.)

To be fair, a lot of the tropes in both of the above paragraphs could easily fit in either category, because there’s a lot of overlap between paranormal YA fiction and school romance/fantasy manga. (A lot of manga are technically paranormal YA.) This book still feels like a blurring of two genres, though. Two already closely related genres.

The thing is, I bought Ink specifically because I wanted a YA fantasy novel that was basically a school romance/fantasy manga in novel form. Because those things? Are two things that I dearly love. And that’s what this book is, at its heart, so I can’t complain too much that what’s inside the book is basically what it says on the tin. However, I was hoping that Ink would be more than the sum of its parts, and it just isn’t.

Ink is very much the sum of its parts.

Which is not to say that Ink is bad. There’s some good stuff in here. For example: the book’s magic elements. The Moderately Obnoxious Love Interest’s big dangerous secret is that he draws pictures that come to life. He’s still dangerous to our heroine, because his sketches want to attack her for some reason, but that’s more interesting to me than, say, him being dangerous to her because he’s secretly a vampire who wants to drink her. Also, “The Boy Who Drew Cats” was seriously one of my very favorite stories growing up, so yay for magical living pictures in a Japanese setting.*

Speaking thereof, I also really like the Japanese setting! The mundane details of Katie’s life in Japan are pretty interesting, and the author does a good job incorporating snippets of Japanese language here and there to add to the book’s sense of place. There’s even a glossary of Japanese terms at the back! (There’s also a set of discussion questions. What’s with discussion questions in YA novels these days? Is it me, or do they seem more prevalent than they used to be?)

The standout, breakaway, bonus feature of Ink, however, is the book’s production. This is a beautifully made paperback, with a textured, faux-book-jacket cover that emulates the feel of handmade paper. Petra Dufkova’s cover art incorporates both transparent watercolors and ink to brilliant effect, and the portrait of the heroine on the front of the book is rendered in a way that suggests the blending of Western illustration and manga art. This is perfect, considering the nature of the book itself. Ross Siu’s pen-and-ink drawings (mostly representative of Tomohiro’s drawings) are scattered throughout the book, and there are a few multiple-page sequences of marginal illustrations that call attention to aspects of particular scenes. (There’s one sequence of a bird in different poses that even works as a–somewhat choppy–animation if you flip the pages.)

So, I guess what I’m saying is, if you have never read another paranormal YA book and you haven’t encountered much manga and anime, this book might be awesome. And if you have read every paranormal YA book you could get your hands on and consumed a metric ton of manga and anime, and just find yourself hungry for more, because you love it all indiscriminately, this book might be tailor-made for you. And if you find yourself so seduced by a book’s production that you can overlook its other elements, then this book might deserve a place on your shelf, because it’s really flipping pretty.

But if you are familiar with YA fantasy and familiar with school romance manga and anime, and like both genres well enough but not indiscriminately, and prefer to seek out interesting and original titles that spin old tropes in new, creative ways, then I suspect Ink will come across as too derivative. It just doesn’t break much new ground.

All that being said, Ink is the first book in a series (though it has a prequel, a novella available in ebook form), and it still has room to grow. I enjoy its atmosphere enough, and I’m curious enough about where it will go from here, that I will probably check out the next installment when it’s released.

* * *

*Ink also suffers from a sad lack of magical cats.

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