Review of the Day: Inkspell
Amazon hasn't gotten around to publishing this one yet. I posted it yesterday but they're dragging their feetsies. Methinks I may have gone over their supposed 1,000 word limit. They don't usually enforce that one very carefully (I think my rant over Dave Barry's Peter Pan spin-off was at least 1,100) but maybe they've finally caught up with me. If so, here at least is my Inkspell review in full firey off-color glory. I figure Cornelia Funke has so much money at this point that even if she sees my review and is deeply offended to her core, at least she'll be able to console herself by rolling around in crisp Euros for a couple hours to take her mind off of the experience:
Cornelia Funke is overrated. There, I’ve said it. The world has not ground to a halt. The sky has not fallen on my head. And large mobs of people haven’t appeared in the streets demanding my very blood (yet). Coming to power at the cusp of the Harry Potter era, Funke has always been billed as a kind of second-rate J.K. Rowling. She obviously hasn’t the writing chops (not to mention the sense of humor) but when I read, “Inkheart” all those years ago I couldn’t care less. Sure, it went on a little too long. There were chapters that could’ve used an editor and ideas that were more than a little familiar, but it was a truly enjoyable story and I loved it. Funke’s “The Thief Lord” breaks down once the merry-go-round makes an appearance and “Dragonrider” was just a hackneyed “Eragon” (which, in turn, was a hackneyed “Dragonriders of Pern” knock-off, but who’s counting?). But through it all I was convinced that Funke had something going for her since “Inkheart” was so very very splendid. Imagine my horror then when I tried to get through its sequel, “Inkspell”. As a reviewer of children’s books I very rarely have to fight the urge to keep reading. I mean, they’re books for kids after all! How hard could it be? Yet by page 75 of this book I bogged down and began to seriously consider never writing a review for it if it meant slogging through 550 more pages of over-emphasized dribble. Cornelia Funke is so popular and powerful at this moment in time that my little review of her book will merely be a single drop in the ocean of opinion (and not a popular one, by the looks of it). Still, after careful consideration and the painful experience of wasting my Sunday afternoon physically forcing myself to continue reading her book (punctuated by the occasional scream of, “Dribble!”), I can say with complete confidence that Funke has squandered whatever talent she once had. She can still create perfectly believable characters, sure.
When we last met our heroes… they had all escaped from the clutches of the insidious Capricorn and Meggie and Mo still retained their remarkable ability to read characters and objects out of books. As remarkable an ability as that might be, it is not a unique one. Dustfinger, the fire-eater brought to our world out of the pages of “Inkheart” and his faithful sidekick Farid have found a man to read them back into the pages of the book itself. When Dustfinger alone is sent back home, Farid follows him by convincing Meggie to read him there as well. Meggie not only does that, she reads herself in alongside him. Meggie’s parents follow soon thereafter and result is that the family has precisely what so many readers have tried to do over the years. They have become a part of The Inkworld and their very presence will change the story that exists.
Because I’ve always loved “Harry Potter” books I try not to blame them for very much. Just the same, there is one crime to which J.K. Rowling must be held accountable. The longer her books grew the more she encouraged second-rate competitors to write 500 to 600 page tomes of fantasy for children as well. The result is that a book like “Eragon” (a book in which the protagonist is recorded as waking up at the beginning of literally 20+ chapters) or “Inkspell”. What I have to assume here is that Funke has reached the point where she no longer takes advice from editors. So what happens as a result? We get chapter after chapter of Elinor pacing around her home and basement in impotence.
Let’s talk about the women in these books as well. For a writer who came up with the rather charming picture book, “The Princess Knight”, Funke is deathly afraid of strong female characters. I see I’ve raised some ire with that statement. I will explain. Please consider the three stereotypical kids of women in books. You have your maidens, your crones, and your motherly figures. It seems that “Inkspell” is enchanted with such stereotyping and does nothing to upset the balance. So our heroine is a maiden who never comes up with an original idea on her own to outsmart the villain. She leaves such thinking to men like Fenoglio or her own father (or even Dustfinger, to some extent). When she is allowed to think on her own she wreaks havoc by either crossing over into The Inkworld without letting anyone who loves her know or throws herself into the midst of danger because the parents she so callously abandoned are hurt. Motherly figures include her own mother Resa (who’s sole purpose is to tend to her husband and daughter and never express any original opinions of her own) or Dustfinger’s wife Roxane who (like most of the women in this book) dotes on her man and no one else. Crones include Mortola, who is as two-dimensional as that useless villain Basta. You might make an argument that Elinor does not fit this model. You might but she’s perhaps the most useless character of them all. Doing exactly what she did in “Inkheart” and never convincing her captors of anything new
Now let’s talk editing. We have three or four chapters where Orpheus does nothing but lounge about Elinor’s house waiting for the convenient moment in the plot where he will be sucked into the story. He has no plan and his lingering in Elinor’s home is not only lazy writing but confusing to boot. And it just lengthens an already intolerable piece. Now by the end of the book (spoiler alert for those who pay attention to such things) Meggie and her family decide to stay in the Inkworld. There’s a death warrant out on Mo’s head, the world has become more and more dangerous, most of the good guys are dead, and they decide to stay. Why? Because they find it enchanting. From what I can tell of Mo’s experiences he’s been shot, kept in a cave, taken to a dungeon, seen his wife and daughter put into mortal peril… but gosh darn look at all the pretty fairies! What a lovely place! Sorry but I’m not buying it and neither would anyone who knew how intent Mo is on protecting his family. Funke excels at creating believable characters. The new ones introduced here speak volumes while the old are consistent with their previously established personalities. All the more reason the ending is as implausible as it is.
Here’s what I found saddest about “Inkspell”: I think it could have been easily salvageable. It wouldn’t have been hard at all! Just editing, baby. Lots and lots of editing. Up the pace, make it exciting, and stop telling us for the fortieth time that it’s hard to read Dustfingers face or Resa is worried or Farid is jealous of Roxane. Farid and Dustfinger sneak into The Castle of Night, poke about a bit, accomplish nothing, and leave. Such chapters and experiences take up pages and pages of text and leave the story bobbing along a the sea of self-indulgence. Funke is just so overly pleased with herself that it was all I could do not to take the book and edit it myself out of spite. Perhaps if I had less of a life I would. That’d larn ‘em, eh?
If “Inkheart” and “Inkspell” were published in tandem today and Cornelia Funke, until this moment in time, was an unknown name, the first book would receive nothing but praise and the second nothing but boos. I’ll grant that the second section of any trilogy is always the hardest to write. “The Two Tower”, “The City of Gold and Lead”, etc. are always a bit slow and a bit plodding. Just the same, they usually aren’t unreadable. Now I was bored at page 75, yes. But I found that around page 385 the tale picked up a bit again. So here is my advice. If you really enjoyed “Inkheart” and would like nothing better than to continue to the adventure with “Inkspell”, don’t feel as if you are alone when you find yourself nodding off during the birthday celebration for the grandson of the prince. Just keep slogging through and eventually it will get a little better. Not good, of course. But definitely better. A disappointing sequel in a previously enchanting little series.