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Book Review: Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr

Title: Ink Exchange

Author: Melissa Marr



Genre:
Young Adult, Dark Fantasy

Stand Alone or Series: Second book in the series.

Summary: (from HarperCollins.com)
Unbeknownst to mortals, a power struggle is unfolding in a world of shadows and danger. After centuries of stability, the balance among the Faery Courts has altered, and Irial, ruler of the Dark Court, is battling to hold his rebellious and newly vulnerable fey together. If he fails, bloodshed and brutality will follow.

Seventeen-year-old Leslie knows nothing of faeries or their intrigues. When she is attracted to an eerily beautiful tattoo of eyes and wings, all she knows is that she has to have it, convinced it is a tangible symbol of changes she desperately craves for her own life.

The tattoo does bring changes—not the kind Leslie has dreamed of, but sinister, compelling changes that are more than symbolic. Those changes will bind Leslie and Irial together, drawing Leslie deeper and deeper into the faery world, unable to resist its allures, and helpless to withstand its perils. . . .

Why did we read this book: Because we absolutely adored Wicked Lovely and we both fell in love with Melissa Marr's writing.

Review:

First Impressions:

Ana: After Reading Wicked Lovely I thought I was somewhat prepared for Ink Exchange and the insight into the Dark Court. I was wrong. This is a much darker story, dealing with deeper, grimmer issues than Wicked Lovely did and with an outcome that speaks volumes about how to tell a tale for YA without been patronizing or excessively optimistic. I was deeply affected by the story, and utterly impressed that she ended it the way she did – it was absolutely perfect. More of that, please.

Thea:While I was very impressed with Wicked Lovely, Ink Exchange blew me away. All those shades of gray we mentioned in our joint review for the previous book are multiplied a hundredfold in this installment. This is an impressive, emotionally stirring novel that ends PERFECTLY. Enough said. I am officially a Melissa Marr fangirl.

On the Plot:The Dark Court is in deep trouble. Ever since the final events in Wicked Lovely with the Winter Queen’s cruel reign coming to an end and with the restoration of the Winter-Summer balance, the Dark Court has lost their main source of darkness – darkness is what sustain the Dark fey and they had plenty of that when Beria was the queen. So much so they hardly ever needed the sustenance from humans.

Irial, the Dark King is in a hard spot. His Fey are becoming increasingly weak and increasingly greedy and ready to go to war in order to get the dark feelings they need to survive from someone, anyone, in any form. He has to make a difficult decision, he needs to save his people and so he does. He is to use humans as conduits to feed the fey.

Enter Leslie, friends with Aislinn, Leslie knows nothing about the Fey but she knows everything about darkness. She lives a hard life, with a father who doesn’t care for her and a brother who sold her to a drug dealer to pay his debts. Leslie was drugged and gang raped and is trying to get her life back on track. She wishes more than anything to feel no fear and no anger. When she decides to get a tattoo – for her, a symbol of control of her own body - she doesn’t know that she is about to be bound to the Dark King by the very ink (which are the blood and tears of the Dark Fey) that is to become her art and take place as a conduit of emotions between humans and fey, feeding them through herself. The connection with the Dark King re-ignites a centuries old feud between Niall, main advisor to the Summer King and Irial, when both men end up falling in love with her.

Ana:Where to start? Perhaps with my own feelings whilst reading this story? I felt like I was myself, a conduit of all the happenings and feelings in the book: I alternated between sad, disgusted, terrified, and angry with happy, enchanted, hopeful and cautiously optimistic. When a book stirs my feelings like this, I feel perfectly content – this is why I read.

The originality of the premise – to link a mortal to the fey via a tattoo inked with blood and tears and make her a conduit of dark emotions from humans to fey that will starve without these feelings is amazing. But not as much as the way the story is told. From the very start with Leslie struggling with the horrific thing that happened to her – caused by her own brother – to the very end with Leslie taking control of her own life, accepting that the fear and the hate are parts of her which she can not live without and which she doesn’t want to be without.

The insight into the Dark Court both attracted and repulsed me – the things that they did to sustain themselves were downright horrific – it involved using and abusing other fey and humans, and sometimes the end result was death. Yes. And yet, somehow, it was very clear that there was no evil involved – the Dark fey are what they are. Irial, as their King, understood that but he also understood that there’s gotta be measure to it – making him a wonderfully balanced character.

There are so many themes explored in this: Choice, just like in Wicked Lovely – Leslie, has a choice to make by the end of the book; Change and Adaptation – Irial, Niall and Leslie go through the motions of their relationship and all of them came out of it scarred – no one could have gone through what they have without the capability of adapting to their conditions and to reflect seriously on what it all meant to them.

Another point that I loved was the difference between Temptation and Interest. One can be tempted and attracted to anything but that does not mean they are really interested in them - that is very clearly an ongoing issue in these novels since humans are so tempted by the Fey and all of them in the end, have to make a choice – yes, we are back to the Choice thematic again – on whether to accept it or not. The fact that they can and will choose at least so far, their humanity over all the things the fey can give them is another thing I love about these books. So far then, (not that I am counting) is Humans 2 x 0 Fey.

I usually loathe love triangles but I thought the one in Ink Exchange was superbly done and I felt both men deserved Leslie’s interest. A word for the romantically inclined – there is a happy ending in the novel for all of them, but the happy ending is not without sacrifices and it is not a romantic happy ending. But it is perfect and fitting and to end it in any other way would have been less than stellar – one can not help but to compare this with the Breaking Dawn fiasco of a few weeks ago.

Thea: My vicious, non-romantic heart will speak for this novel! This is a story about darkness, and pain and revelry in it, as we explore psychological issues of rape, addiction, and the faerie realm of the Dark Court. In the previous novel we got a dose of the Winter Court and the Summer Court, and while neither were particularly cute and cuddly, the Dark Court is a horse of a completely different color...and I loved every shadowy, inky minute of it. Unlike any of the other faerie courts, the Dark Court relies on strong emotions to feed--rage, jealously, lust, hate, etc. In this new time of peace since Beira's demise, Irial, King of the Dark Court, finds that his fae are starving and weakening. Beira's cruel reign provided an easy feast for Irial and his court, but now with the truce between the Summer King and the new Winter Queen, Irial resorts to new measures to sustain his court--ink exchanges. By binding mortals to the Dark Court via tattoos, inked in shadow and blood, Irial can try to feed off human emotions through a conduit. I found this storyline completely fascinating--there is something very emotional, very ritualistic and personal in getting inked. Extending this to the story, with a tattoo as an actual living conduit, between a mortal girl and the Dark King, it's a very powerful image.

I very much enjoyed seeing the variation here between the different types of faeries, the distinct dark Otherness of Irial's court as opposed to the frivolous Summer Girls of Keenan's. The new additions of the Hounds, halflings, the Gabriel, added even more depth to the world we were introduced to in Wicked Lovely. What's more, I loved that Ms. Marr again does not pass judgement on her characters and her world--the Dark Court isn't "evil" or "bad". It simply is, and needs to exist because it is a part of nature too--a balance must be met, as in all things.

And...I have to admit, I liked the bitter, bloody tang of this court.

The only qualms I had here were a few continuity issues over the course of this book. The lack of communication between Aislinn and Leslie--for the ENTIRE BOOK became incredibly frustrating as the story went on. Aislinn knowing how hurt Leslie was, and then not doing a thing about it didn't sit well with me either. There were many instances where I felt Leslie was drifting into "LOST-land"--i.e. exhibiting the syndromes where characters frustratingly keep asking the same question over and over again without asking the important questions (if you're a fellow LOST fan, think Locke in any conversation with Benry over the past two seasons). It's enough to have me bang my head against the wall in frustration.

That said, I think this book was beautifully plotted, and the ultimate ending for Leslie, Irial, and Niall I found absolutely PERFECT. This just feels like the one true way to finish the story, and I applaud Ms. Marr for sticking with it. Bravo.

On the Characters:

Ana: The characters in Ink Exchange are so fleshed out and interesting, I wanted to jump into the pages and have conversations with all of them.

Leslie, under despair and her utmost certainty, when the story starts, that a tattoo would help her heal, believing the tattoo was to be a symbol of her conviction, the one that she would be better, was such a touching character. At first, she wants to get rid of the fear and the pain but later, when she has her wish granted, when all that she feels is sucked by Irial to feed the Court , she despairs even more deeply because she learns that the pain and fear are parts of what and who she is.

Niall, who has been a member of the Summer Court and close adviser to Keenan for 900 years, also has a past in the dark Court – a past that finally catches up with him. He is a most tortured character, with horrendous memories about his time in the Dark Court – as it should be – but still struggling to accept that he too, has darkness within and still has friendship feelings towards Irial . This is a very complex character, inflexible in the matters of honour. I felt his pain when he realizes that Keenan wanted to use him and I felt his love for Leslie and for Irial as palpable things.

As for Irial. Well. If Niall is complex and Leslie is touching, then Irial is all of that and much more. As a King he has the best interest of his court at heart; he is ruthless in what needs to be done and even cruel in the way he carries out his duties. He teases Keenan because he enjoys feeding from his volatile character and he has no problem whatsoever in bonding Leslie to him and using her.

In the hands of a lesser writer this would probably be a horrendous, morbid, downright repugnant relationship to read about, heck, if it could be called a relationship at all. But Melissa Marr excels at portraying sentiments and feelings for both characters that makes it not only bearable but also somewhat, and weirdly so, beautiful. Because Irial doesn’t simply feed off Leslie, he is likewise changed by her, he gets all the dark feelings through her but all that is good in her also comes to him and only to him. And, this is the twist, he opens himself to it - it is as the title says an Ink EXCHANGE and that is what makes this book incredible. The choices that lead to sacrifices and ultimately to change.

With everyone willing to sacrifice –both Niall and Irial wanting to do what is best for Leslie but without even having to – because Leslie does not need her men to make those decisions for her, she is fully capable of standing up for herself. There could have been no other end – this one was fully satisfying.

Thea: The characters of Ink Exchange are much more developed, far more interesting than those of Wicked Lovely--I found myself enthralled with Leslie, Irial and Niall. Leslie, the main protagonist, has a depth that Aislinn lacked--her struggles making money for her broken family, holding off her abusive drug dealing brother, her alcoholic father, not to mention the horrors she has been through at the hands of her family...it's not a pretty picture. But Leslie feels very real, hurt and wary of trusting anyone with her problems (she refuses to let anyone know how bad things are for her, even keeping this a secret from her best friend Aislinn) but still coming out of past trauma all the stronger. Her fixation with getting a tattoo--THE tattoo--as a means of reclaiming herself, body and soul, is something I could completely understand. And, when what she is looking for backfires on her and she becomes Irial's Shadow Girl, numb to all emotion, it is heartbreaking. Still, Leslie's strength, the power of her will to choose what she wants her life to be, is incredibly endearing.

Niall, Keenan's right hand man, is another wonderful addition to this story. We met him superficially in the prior novel, but really get into his backstory in this book. His attraction to Leslie, rooted in his own darkness, and his struggle with his true nature as a Gancanagh complicates any relationship he tries to have. Because he is Gancanagh, any mortal he is physically with will become addicted to his touch, and will waste away without it. He also has to come to terms with his past, his genuine feelings of affection and respect for Irial despite their history, and how his relationship with his King Keenan will become.

Irial, the Dark King, is probably my favorite character of the series. As I mentioned earlier, I loved that Ms. Marr takes the Dark Court in this book and does not paste it with an "evil" label. Even though Irial has done terrible, cold things in the past, just as with Keenan (the Summer King), everything he does is for the good of his court and for his fae. And, for all that he is the big bad Dark King and must keep appearances as a strong ruler, he understands that Darkness cannot run rampant--no more than a land can endure eternal heat or cold without killing the land. Instead of an all out war, Irial looks for another solution to feed his starving court, and finds it with the ink exchange to Leslie, who selects his mark. And, for all that he deprives Leslie of the choice to know what she will become when her ink is completed, the bond that connects the two characters is not just a cold blooded affair--he comes to love his Shadow Girl, and becomes vulnerable to their bond.

The intersection of these three characters and the relationships they have with each other is a hot mess--but one I reveled in reading.

And, I'll say it again--the resolution to their story is perfection. In my opinion.

Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:

Ana: I was shocked, mystified and at some points even disgusted – Ink Exchange is one of the most disturbing stories I have ever read even more so when I think this is a YA novel. It deals with rape, addiction and questionable actions that stirs feelings and begs for questioning one’s own mind and because of that, this gutsy, original and yes, beautiful story will be making my top 10 reads of 2008.

Thea: Ms. Marr puts a lot of love into this story, especially in her research of tattooing. In the afterward, she includes an image of Irial's mark--the tattoo that Leslie wears on her back. Very cool. What more can I say? I love this book. Loved it more than the first one, and eagerly await for the next story in the series.

Notable Quotes/Parts:

Ana: Irial on the Dark Fey:

We are what we are, Niall, neither as good nor as evil as others paint us. And what we are doesn’t change how truly we feel, only how free we are to follow these feelings.

Thea: As before, Ms. Marr's beautiful writing style is flawless in this entry. If anything, she has improved on her earlier work. I love the passage after she gets the outlining of her tattoo done:
She felt like she should be afraid, but she wasn't. Rabbit had lied: something was very wrong. She knew with a certainty that seemed impossible--like tasting sugar and having called it salt--that the words he said didn't taste true. But then it didn't matter. The missing hands of the chaos clock shifted again, and nothing else mattered in that moment, just the ink in her skin, the hum in her veins, the euphoric zinging that made her feel a confidence she'd not known in far too long.

Rating:

Ana: 9, Damn Near Perfection!

Thea: 9, Damn Near Perfection