Ink by Amanda Sun has a cool set up: people with the power to make drawings – even calligraphy – come to life, and an unusual setting: modern Japan, with a mostly Japanese cast. Though the main character is a gaijin, all of the other important characters (discounting her aunt, who isn’t hugely important) are Japanese teenagers in a local school. Katie Greene has moved to Japan to live with an aunt after the death of her mother, and is just a couple of months into her time there. Her spoken Japanese isn’t great, though passable, and her kanji is bad. (Which is not a criticism; kanji is hard.)(And, I just quizzed a friend about living in Japan, and about the writing systems more generally, and I’m feeling pretty impressed about how difficult they are to master.)
I admit I was a little worried about this set up, because while the whole fish-out-of-water, new-girl-at-school trope can be a nice metaphor for more general teenage alienation (e.g. Twilight) or the dislocation of grief (e.g. Mac’s relocation to Ireland at the start of the Fever series after the death of her sister), sometimes this trope can fall into the whole exoticized other thing that’s either lazy at best, or racist at worst. I don’t actually have the background in modern Japanese teen culture to back up this statement, but I felt like Inkavoided this trap, and the Japanese cultural milieu wasn’t played as backdrop or stage-set. The depictions of the city and school systems were matter-of-fact and not romanticized, but with the short bursts of wonder, like the sequence with the cherry blossoms – beautiful! – that runs to a rainstorm and rotting petals in clumps. Foreign cities are sometimes really irritating for the new resident – I can’t read anything – but then they knock you down at the odd moment with their civic power. This book captured that well.
Katie is occasionally too quickly cognizant of when she makes a misstep – oh no, I just used the familiar, not the formal! or whatever – when I think the slightly later dawning horror of screwing up in an unfamiliar social system might have worked better overall. While the mystery of the magical drawings starts with a pretty tense situation – Katie is eavesdropping on an ugly break-up, by accident – that tension runs out pretty fast into the usual bad boy with a heart of gold and couple other dudes for a triangle-ish situation. Her friends get sidelined equally quickly, going from lifelines to bit characters and plot-expedience-devices. The aunt also exits stage right for the most part. The plot dissolves into a lot of prêt-à-porter angst, never really harnessing the real traumas of Katie’s backstory, and the magic ends up being a little dumb and convenient.
Which is frankly a crying shame. There was potential here for the magical ink to function as a grief mechanism, a dangerous and seductive escapism into the built-worlds of our desires, and Katie’s attraction to the bad boy could have been an expression of grief-fueled anger, the self-destructive grief tendency made manifest. But, nope. Katie is milquetoast and often drearily stupid, and her love interest’s vacillation between being a douche-bag and dreamy are obnoxiously obvious. Why is he pushing me awaaaaaay? Is it because of his feeeeeeelings? You think? Jesus. Katie should have just gone and made out with Tanaka, because he was funny and straight up. Jun and Tomo can take their angst and stuff it.
Which, I’ll admit, is my old talking here, and might not be a cogent criticism of a YA novel published by Harlequin Teen. But I’ve been schooled enough in both romance and YA to know that very interesting things can happen in those genres, especially when the dissociation of the paranormal is thrown into the mix. Especially when potent metaphors for the aliveness of writing is the basis. That this ended up being perfunctory and cliche is disappointing – yet another average-yet-special girl must choose between assholes – but it might not actually be surprising, all told, and at least it has a setting that I enjoyed.
Oh, and one last thing: I received this as an ebook from NetGalley – thank you! – and I was initially confused by the little drawings at the corners of the pages. The first third has these little petals in various formations, and then later a bird, etc. There are also larger pen drawings, usually illustrations of what the various characters were drawing. I did enjoy the full illustrations, which had a drippy, sketchy quality that was in line with the tone. I was perplexed by the smaller drawings – the petals, for example – which didn’t seem to correlate to scene breaks. It wasn’t until halfway through the bird drawings that I realized these must be planned as a flip-book, which is really cool design, one that works beautifully with the themes of the book. Good design that is totally lost in the ebook format. I have embraced ebooks – partially out of necessity, and partially out of expedience – but it behooves publishers to translate this paper-bound stuff to the electronic medium a little better. A YouTube video, an app: something should be linked at the end so we can experience this piece of the book that is just straight up nifty. Alas.