Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr

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Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A dark faery tale with a decent plot and ever-popular themes of emotional dilemmas and choices concerning love and sex, this also explores the mechanisms and pitfalls of addiction in a magical rather than chemical guise. Stylish and intense, will be enjoyed by the genre fans.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: July 2008
Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0007267163

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Leslie's life is not much fun: her father is a drunk and a gambler, her brother uses (and deals) in drugs and it's up to her to maintain a façade of normality and find the money to pay the bills the father misses with her waitressing job. She doesn't confide in anybody and, increasingly struggling with her own feelings after her brother spikes her drink and allows her to be raped by his dealer friend, feels compelled to get an elaborate tattoo as means of regaining control of her body, and her life.

At the same time the fey of the Dark Court are suffering: since the truce between the Winter and Summer courts there aren't enough strong faerie emotions for them to feed on - and they can't directly pick up human ones. Their king Irial instigates a process of Ink Exchange which might help the situation.

It's Irial's eyes and wings that Leslie, unknowingly but surely, picks up for her design: and it's a beginning of a bond between her and Irial that will, at first, make her confident and pain-free again, but which will gradually reveal itself to be an addiction more disempowering than anything that had happened to Leslie before.

There is also Niall, a Summer Court faery with a somehow complicated history with Irial's court and Irial himself, and a nature than makes his embrace deadly addictive to humans.

Set in the same world (and the same, pretty grim and desolate, town of Huntsdale) and more or less immediately following in time the events of Wicked Lovely, Ink Exchange takes some of the secondary characters from the first novel and explores their emotional conflicts on the background of the political machinations of Faerie courts.

Love, sex and their associated dilemmas remain among the main subjects of Ink Exchange (and concern 17 year old humans as much as hundreds-of-years old faeries), but the second major theme of the novel is reactions to traumatic experiences and addiction. I would also add self-harm (relatively common reaction to sexual trauma) but I had a strong feeling that tattoos and piercings were depicted as essentially positive and thus I can't impose my own ideas about what does and what doesn't constitute self-mutilation.

Faerie courts and faerie lovers notwithstanding, I suspect that for most of the target audience, it's likely to be the emotional journey of Leslie that will be the most convincing and the most moving: from unbearable suffering to the narcotic-like dulling of all feelings achieved, in her case, by magical rather than chemical means, to, eventually, reclaiming her own emotions, including the pain.

But it doesn't mean that the two other narrative voices are without interest. I enjoyed the way that a deep connection via the Ink Exchange of the title with a mortal girl changes the Dark King Irial himself, his political struggles in the complex and cruel world of faerie politics; a glimpse into the way Aislinn of Wicked Lovely copes with her role as the Summer Queen; a conflict between the loyalty to the court, his own nature and the pull of his feelings for Niall.

If there is a more philosophical underlay to Ink Exchange it is about making choices, freedom, becoming your own person, taking responsibility and letting go - of your own demons, but also of other people, especially those that we love: themes important to all of us, but of perhaps particular interest to older teenagers/young adults who are working out first serious relationships.

I did detect a very slight whiff of the addiction/co-dependence nonsense, but in all honesty it is probably more to do with the fact that it would be very hard to write a novel dealing with any aspect of addiction without, at least to small extent, absorbing some of the ideas about the subject that are taken virtually for granted nowadays.

Ink Exchange is a darker tale than Wicked Lovely, naturally because the faerie part of the action centres on the Dark Court (whose more horrible exploits are hinted at an briefly described, but without making a big point about it), but also because of Leslie's traumatic rape experience (which is never detailed, but oft mentioned) and the way the two link together in the story of Leslie's falling into the thrall of Irial as the way to medicate her own pain. Similarly to the previous book, Leslie hungers after respectable normality and it's the circumstances and her traumatic experiences rather than desire to question authority or push boundaries that compel her into the labyrinths of the Irial's world.

The ending, alas, is a bit disappointing, not necessarily because it's a happy one for the main character, but because the redemption is perhaps a little bit too universal. I think readers ready for the narrative and themes of Ink Exchange could have coped with something more in keeping with the slightly menacing feel of the whole novel.

Still, those who like this kind of thing, will enjoy this novel which ticks all the boxes that a dark modern fairy tale should. The intensely emotional character of the story (it is all about emotions, pretty much, and the imagery of the intertwined worlds is at times excellent) makes it one mostly for the girls. So does the dominant role of the female protagonist, even though two out of three points of view are male - or as a 17 year old female could imagine a male point of view to be.

Thanks to the publisher for sending a copy to the Book Bag.

Those who like such stories should definitely check out Holly Black's Ironside.

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