Review: Inkheart (book)

I saw a preview for the forthcoming Inkheart movie a few months back, and it looked like fun--and it appeared to feature a sort of magic that I particularly like. And I had vaguely heard good things about the book, which I vaguely thought was one of those fantasy books I had somehow missed as a kid (much as I had missed all of Diana Wynne Jones's and Patricia Wrede's and Diane Duane's kids' books).

So when I was in a bookstore a couple weeks ago, looking for the book of Despereaux, I saw a copy of Inkheart on the shelf and thought, what the hell, might as well give it a try; I generally prefer to read books before seeing the movies based on them.

I did have some concerns even before I bought it, though: it's much longer than most books I'm willing to read, and it's the first of a trilogy.

Anyway, I got it home and started reading it, and though it had a pleasant emphasis on books, and I more or less liked Meggie and her father, it wasn't really grabbing me. I kept waiting for the magic to happen.

There are a bunch of spoilers for the book in the rest of this entry, so I'll start by saying that, sadly, I just didn't like the book. Details follow. But lots of people love the book. If you're emotionally attached to it, be warned that I'm going to say some pretty negative things about it.

The first problem I had is that it isn't until page 138 that we even hear about any magic in the world of the book, and not until page 176 that we see any magic. Perhaps my expectations were set wrong by seeing the movie trailer. But I wanted to see people and things coming to life out of books, whereas the first 130+ pages read to me like kind of mundane kids'-adventure-story stuff. I got impatient.

I also got impatient with the deliberate hiding of information from the reader. Mo insists on not telling Meggie anything until page 138. Why? What good can it possibly do to hide everything from her? Then when he finally does tell her what's going on, someone asks about Capricorn and he says the less you know about him the better. Okay, yes, I see that the author is trying to ratchet up narrative tension by scary foreshadowing, but I just found it annoying; Mo really didn't have any good in-story reason to hide so much important information for so long.

On a side note, I was surprised (not in a bad way) to find out various information about the book itself. (This paragraph isn't criticism, just notes.) Somewhere in the first few chapters, there was a comment about driving to Italy, and I thought, oh, huh, I didn't realize this was set in Europe. And there was a line about it being the twenty-first century, and I thought, oh, huh, I wonder when this book was published. And I checked, and was surprised it was so recent (2003), and then discovered that it was written in German and translated into English. That's pretty cool; I can't think of very many kids' sf books that have been translated into English.

And yet, I wonder if the translation had something to do with my feeling that the prose wasn't as fluid as I wanted it to be. It's perfectly good, nothing wrong with it; just felt uninspired to me. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but there weren't enough other sources of reader pleasure to distract me from noticing the prose.

Later, I got annoyed at the inconsistency in the magic rules. The author sets up this magic system that's so scary that I can't imagine anyone using it intentionally unless they absolutely have to--when you read aloud, anyone who's even barely within earshot might disappear permanently. That's scary! And then Mo, who's already lost his wife to this magic, and who's spent years avoiding reading aloud because of it, casually reads from Where the Sidewalk Ends with Meggie in the room. Huh? Isn't he worried that she might vanish into the book? And why would Capricorn be willing to risk being in the same room when Mo reads from Inkheart? Shouldn't he put Mo in a room by himself and say "There better be gold here when I come back"? Anyway, from about halfway through the book onward, the idea that people disappear from the real world when the magic reading happens is pretty much dropped. And removing that consequence from the magic completely changes the tone of the magic system, and makes one of the central pieces of backstory (the loss of Meggie's mother) feel, to me, arbitrary and capricious on the author's part.

On a side note, the postman disappearing when Mo read aloud put me off and distracted me. Surely the postal authorities would wonder where their employee went. Surely they would send someone around, and find his vehicle, and question Mo. Surely the police would investigate, and would learn that Mo's wife had mysteriously disappeared, and that Mo couldn't give a plausible account of what had happened to her either. Surely the postman's wife and kids would be distressed by his disappearance. And so on.

Which brings me to another issue: the book didn't feel to me like it was set in the real modern world. For example, until very late in the book, the characters don't seem to know about telephones. Why didn't Mo phone Elinor to let her know he was coming? Why does the first mention of cell phones come nearly at the end of the book? Also along similar lines: when modern Western people escape from being kidnapped by a gang of brutal thugs who appear to have a bunch of other people in slavery, I would expect them to immediately go to the police. Doesn't seem to occur to our heroes. (Late in the book, they go to the police about a different issue and discover that the local cop is under Capricorn's thumb, but they should have tried this much earlier. And maybe this is just me being provincially American, but I would expect that kidnapping and slavery would be matters of interest to law enforcement at a higher level than just the local cops. (But I don't know whether Italy has an FBI equivalent.))

One more related thing that I didn't even notice until I read reviews of the movie (more on that below): The book appears to be set in the early 2000s, and yet, iIrc, there's no mention whatsoever of computers or the Internet.

There were a bunch of other small oddities that I could have forgiven if I had liked the book more. For example, in the modern world, is it really true that people don't think of books having authors? My sense is that most adults who read (and quite a few kids) are very aware of authors--Judy Blume, Rowling, Tom Clancy, various romance authors, etc. And the idea, repeated over and over, that readers not only don't pay any attention to author names but believe that all stories were written long ago and all authors are dead just seems weird to me. I don't think I know any adult readers who think that (feel free to prove me wrong), but pretty much everyone in the world of the book seems to think it.

Relatedly, one other nitpicky little thing that bugged me: All through the book, Meggie looks at book covers, and reads stuff that's inside the books, but the narration never mentions a title or author. This started to feel to me like Funke was deliberating avoiding naming the books--which I can see being a fun game of catch-the-reference for readers, but in the context of this book it annoyed me. For example, why not say that the book that Elinor gives Meggie is Where the Sidewalk Ends? Relatedly, Meggie gets a couple of chances to look inside Inkheart, but she apparently somehow manages to avoid reading any of the words or having any idea what the book is about, which just doesn't seem plausible to me for an avid reader.

There was at least one aspect of my reaction that was really my fault for setting my expectations wrong: three people who had read the book mentioned in passing, while I was reading it, that it (or possibly the sequels, not sure) got very dark, so I was tensed for some really bad stuff to happen--but I don't feel like it did. None of the good guys get tortured or raped or killed or even severely injured. (And I'm glad they don't! But I was expecting that something at that level was going to happen.) Elinor loses all her books, which is pretty awful, but she had earlier seemed almost pathologically attached to them, and she seemed to be interested in them primarily as objects of monetary value rather than for what they contained, so I was less sympathetic than I might've normally been. And almost everyone gets a mostly happy ending. All the characters talked constantly about how horrific Capricorn and Basta were, but the bad guys never actually did anything especially evil on-camera; every time they were about to, something would stop them. Which again made me feel like the tension was being artificially manufactured. But again, this aspect of my reaction probably did have more to do with my setting my expectations wrong (because in kids' books I don't normally expect awful things to happen); and it wasn't a huge part of my reaction, just a sidelight.

Anyway. Halfway through the book, I realized that I wasn't really enjoying it, and that there was a long way to go, and I decided it wasn't worth my time to read the rest in detail, so I started skimming. I do more or less like the ending, and the sample chapters from books 2 and 3 are intriguing, but I'm not going to read those other volumes.

The movie still looks to me like it could be fun--though, based on the preview, it appears to deviate wildly from the book. (There are no spoilers about the movie in this entry; I haven't seen it yet.) I was a little hesitant about Brendan Fraser playing Mo, but it turns out that he's who Funke modeled the character in the book after, so that's all right. (And I've rather liked him in most of the movies I've seen him in.)

The reviews of the movie that I've seen so far have been mostly middling-to-negative. Amusingly, several of them complain about specific things that were also problems in the book, and a couple of them seem to assume that those problems weren't in the book; I don't think any of the reviewers I've read so far have read the book.

So I think that if I set my expectations appropriately, I may well find the movie worth watching.

(Wrote most of this entry over a week ago, neglected to post it 'til now.)

10 Responses to “Review: Inkheart (book)”

  1. Farah

    My problem, and why I only read the first book, was that it isn’t Meggie’s adventure., It’s her fathers’. She just gets to watch.

  2. Vardibidian

    The book is great! You’re wrong, you… you… I hate you! (runs out, sniffling).

    Seriously, I loved Inkheart, although I think by now it’s only my third-favorite of Cornelia Funke, behind Dragon Rider and Igraine the Brave. Inkheart being Mo’s adventure didn’t bother me at all, because I read it as a new(ish) father myself, and was happy to find a YA-type book that had good grupp characters.

    I can’t really argue with your criticism, Jed, except to say that you’re a stinky, stinky stink-stink and wrong, wrong, wrong. But, you know, not about any of the specific stuff. Since I read a lot of YA/SF stuff, I am used to the idea that things can be set in the 21st century and have either no internet at all or only a sliver of poorly represented internet, and the same with mobile phones. I think of it as a genre convention. I was going to give a few examples, but I’ve been looking back through what I’ve read, and I can’t seem to find anything obvious. Still, I maintain that it happens a lot. So there.

    No thanks,

  3. Melissa R.

    Hey, wow, we agree completely, Jed! I wondered if the length might be related to the translation, and to the original language. I ended up skimming because there was just *so* much to get through.

    (And which of you Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell to be too thick to wade through?)

  4. Mary Alexandra Agner

    Try _The Thief Lord_; I enjoyed it much more and had similar issues to yours with _Inkheart_.

  5. Jed

    Farah: Interesting; I hadn’t noticed that. I partly agree–for example, I had assumed after we discovered that Meggie had the ability too that she was going to play a major role in the climax, but she didn’t. But I think overall I felt that she was actively enough involved to keep me interested in what was happening. …Then again, I sometimes quite like stories in which we gradually realize that the protagonist is really just a spear-carrier in someone else’s story.

    V: Oh, yeah? Well … well … NYAH NYAH! SO THERE!

    I’m surprised to hear that lack of modern technology is common in modern-setting YA sf–I think of today’s teens and preteens as being thoroughly plugged in, so I would expect them to be dissatisfied with books that didn’t reflect that. Heck, High Wizardry had kids using computers back in 1990. Sure, there’s Harry Potter, but given that the wizards in that even have a hard time dealing with cars, I wouldn’t expect them to be aware of higher-tech stuff.

    But the lack of tech in Inkheart was a relatively minor aspect of that part of my reaction; it contributed to, but wasn’t the only factor in, my general feeling that the author thought of the book as being set in, oh, I dunno, the 1800s, maybe–at any rate, a time and place that didn’t include easy/fast long-distance communication or transportation (not just cell phones, but any kind of phones at all!), or wide-scale mass production and international distribution of books (the bad guys sure do have an easy time rounding up all known copies of the book), or easily accessible centralized national law enforcement, or various other conveniences of modern Western civilization.

    …None of which is meant to delegitimize your and others’ enjoyment of the book; clearly it really speaks to a lot of people. I would have expected it to speak to me, too; after all, it’s a book in which the protagonists are all book-lovers and avid readers–what’s not to like? But that feeling carried me only through first few dozen pages, alas.

  6. Jed

    Melissa: I’m not sure whether this answers your question, but the German version (Tintenherz) is 573 pages long, according to the German Amazon, whereas the English version is “only” 560 pages long.

    (Hee–the American Amazon page for the book lists all 73 of the books that are cited in Inkheart. Well, okay, if you remove duplicates from their list it’s probably about twenty.)

    Anyway, I think a lot of people really like big thick books. But I tend to find them intimidating. I’ve rather liked Susanna Clarke’s short fiction, and I’ve heard plenty of good things about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but the mass-market paperback is over a thousand pages; there’s no way I’m going to read that anytime soon.

    Mary: Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll try and remember to take a look at that.

  7. Kyle Hoff

    Hey i understand where you are coming from, but this is a kid book so you really can expect that much blood and killing to happen. I think if you were a kid and you tried reading this book you might like it a little bit more. I read this book at the age of 15 and i thought it was an asome book.

    I can also see how you think the story it really MO’s, but I saw it as not just his andenture. It is his and his duaghters. for them both to deal with the road block that they are faceing.

  8. Emma

    Hi, I’ve recently picked up the book and I agree that to me, everything was just happening to slowly until i got to maybe the last third of the book where things picked up a little. I’ve been wondering too if maybe in the translating process, some of the ‘story’ has been lost. The copy I have is translated by a publishing house but I think I’ll go check out some other versions if there are any.

    The thing with Funke not mentioning the name of the book, could it possibly be because of copyright issues? Not sure but maybe?

  9. kel

    well i loooooooooooooooooooooooooooove inkheart! it is like my fav book! but i dont see why u dont like it! at school ive had a book report due on it and it went great. i used the characters from the movies to do my character scrap book(which was the assignment)I disagree (but not in a bad way) and hope that youll look past the words and into the heart of the ink or the heart of the story. (inkheart get it hahahahah lol!) -kel

  10. Jed

    Kyle: I think you may have misinterpreted my paragraph about bad things happening. That was only one minor part of my reaction, and it was due to my setting my expectations badly; friends had told me the books got really really dark, so I miscalibrated how dark I expected it to be. So I wasn’t saying that the book should have been darker; I was saying that my expectations in that regard were wrong. I certainly don’t normally expect kids’ books to get that dark. Anyway, that was only one of quite a few things that didn’t work for me in this book.

    Emma: Interesting thought about copyright, but in the US, it’s legal to mention titles and authors of other books in a book. I’m almost certain that the same is true in most other countries. And in the case of this book, she actually quotes from Where the Sidewalk Ends; she just doesn’t name it. My guess is that she wanted it to be kind of a puzzle or an in-group reference for kids who were familiar with the book, but for me it backfired.

    Kel: Glad you liked it! Clearly plenty of people do; it just didn’t work for me.


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