Ink, by Amanda Sun

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Publication date – June 25, 2013

Summary: On the heels of a family tragedy, the last thing Katie Greene wants to do is move halfway across the world. Stuck with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, Katie feels lost. Alone. She doesn’t know the language, she can barely hold a pair of chopsticks, and she can’t seem to get the hang of taking her shoes off whenever she enters a building.

Then there’s gorgeous but aloof Tomohiro, star of the school’s kendo team. How did he really get the scar on his arm? Katie isn’t prepared for the answer. But when she sees the things he draws start moving, there’s no denying the truth: Tomo has a connection to the ancient gods of Japan, and being near Katie is causing his abilities to spiral out of control. If the wrong people notice, they’ll both be targets.

Katie never wanted to move to Japan—now she may not make it out of the country alive.

Thoughts: I have an almost instinctive pull to books involving Japan, largely because I’m interested in the culture and language and like to immerse myself in both things as much as I can since I can’t actually go there at the moment. Unfortunately, for a long time I seemed destined to be disappointed, since almost every SFF novel I read that incorporated Japan in some way did it, well, badly. Poor use of the language, having every Japanese character act like they popped out of a mech anime, you name it. I was starting to think that the only novels that might actually portray Japan anywhere near accurately would be the ones actually written in Japanese. (And alas, I don’t read it well enough at the moment to make attempting that anything more than an exercise in translation, which wouldn’t really allow me to sink into a story the way I can when it’s in English.) I even found some of those issues in books that had been translated from Japanese into English, which, aside from being the sign of a poor translation, just didn’t give me much hope that I’d ever manage to find what I was looking for.

Then along came Ink, and I was pleasantly surprised.

Katie is living with her aunt in Shizuoka, after the death of her mother, and she’s not exactly happy with the arrangement. Her grasp of Japanese is just barely enough to get her by, she misses where she grew up, and that’s all on top of experiencing a major family tragedy. Then she gets involved with Tomohiro, a mysterious boy from her school who has a bad reputation but turns out to be an artist and athlete with a huge secret. He’s kami, a being somewhere between what we know as a god and a spirit, and far from being limited only to ancient stories and religious doctrine, he and his kind play a part in Japan’s affairs even now. Tomohiro would rather suppress his abilities, preferring to keep them in the dark rather than letting them out and risking hurting those around him, but when the yakuza get involved, he might not have much choice in the matter.

If what I described sounds like it’s also something right out of an anime, well, that’s a pretty accurate judgment. But Sun manages to balance that element rather well with actual day-to-day life events; it was, in the beginning, more like a slice-of-life anime than a shoujo story with supernatural elements. And I kind of liked that, since it portrayed living in Japan as realistic. Kids go to school, they go to school clubs, they go home, they eat curry-rice, they watch ridiculous game shows on TV. Then the paranormal stuff comes in and makes it far more of a YA urban fantasy, the plot kicks up a notch and things get far more action-packed as Katie and Tomohiro try to keep his powers a secret from the thugs who want to use them to their advantage.

Sun also incorporates Japanese words and phrases in a way that I actually like. Most novels I’ve seen try to do that end up making the dialogue seem awkward, in part because the author’s knowledge of Japanese seems, well, lacking. I don’t claim to be fluent, but I know enough to be able to tell when the grammar is stilted or verb tenses are being used incorrectly. Sun makes mention in the author’s notes that she actually consulted native speakers to make sure the characters were speaking like actual Japanese teenagers, a small step with big results. Those who are interested in the language can pick up a few new phrases, and those who already know enough to not need the glossary will be able to move along at a swift pace. (Personally, I was amused right from the cover, listing it as part of the Paper Gods series; the pun there is that depending on how it’s written, kami can refer to either a god or paper.)

Ink is a quick read, decently-paced and with writing that flows well. What works against is it that it does come across very much like an anime in the wrong ways, with a reliance on stereotypes that get tired quickly. It’s very predictable. The only character who seems to have much depth is Tomohiro, and even then it’s only within the rather strict confines of the Bad Boy With A Soft Heart stereotype. If you read this book expecting anything other than what you’d get in a shoujo anime, you’ll end up disappointed.

That being said, though, if that is what you’re looking for, then Ink is going to trip all the right triggers.

I’m curious to read the sequel, since this is so far one of the very few novels to actually portray Japan in a way that doesn’t grate on my nerves, and the plot got quite interesting toward the end, with Katie deciding to stay in Japan and with two sides fighting over Tomohiro’s powers. There’s a good amount of potential in that cliffhanger ending, and I want to see how it plays out. It’s definitely an indulgence read, like ice cream, a treat when you want something that doesn’t have to be amazing and blow-your-mind good but can still be enjoyable and fun. I can’t say I’d recommend Ink to everyone, but as I said, for fans of shoujo anime and manga, it’ll be right up their alley.