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Ink - amanda sunInk by Amanda Sun
Paper Gods #1

Harlequin Teen 2013
E-galley ARC
377 pages
YA Fantasy; Urban Fantasy

When Katie Greene’s mother dies and leaves her only child an orphan, she is sent to live with her aunt in Shizuoka, Japan, instead of with her grandparents in Canada, her preferred choice. Her aunt is an English teacher living alone, and encourages Katie to embrace the language and culture and have some fun. Katie learns the language to attend school but sees it as a waiting period, while her grandparents wait to see if her grandfather’s cancer is in remission and the paperwork goes through for her to live with them instead.

At school, it feels like Katie is committing one faux pas after another. When she goes back to the school building to change her indoor slippers for her shoes, she finds herself eavesdropping on the dramatic breakup between Myu and her boyfriend, the school Kendo champion, Tomohiro Yuu. Katie isn’t sure what is worse: seeing the callous way Tomohiro is treating Myu, who thinks he cheated on her and got another girl pregnant, or catching the hidden feeling on Tomo’s face beneath his smirking facade. In that glimpse she can see that the boy is pretending he doesn’t care about Myu, but she has no idea why. When Myu brandishes the sketchbook at Tomo as proof and then flings it to the floor, the pages scatter and one lands by Katie’s feet behind the sliding door. She picks it up and sees a drawing of a girl sitting on a park bench, the rounded bump of a pregnant belly visible under her top. What shocks Katie to her core is when the girl in the drawing turns her head and glares at Katie.

It is only the beginning – the start of Katie’s fascination and suspicions about Tomo, which lead to an odd friendship between them where animosity was before, and then something deeper and sweeter. But it is also the beginning of a new path in Katie’s life, as she learns about the kami, a word that means both “paper” and “god” in Japanese, and what that means to Tomo and his ability to bring ink drawings to life – a gift that goes haywire when Katie is around.

What is Katie to the kami? Why is the ink drawn to her, like she’s a magnetic force? Can she help Tomo control this power and help protect him from the yakuza, who see his ability to draw money and weapons that actually fire a boon to their cause. But the biggest question of all: can she leave Japan behind and continue on with her other life, now that she knows about kami and has fallen for Tomo? Even if staying together means danger and worse? The months ahead are full of unexpected excitement and danger and one very beautiful, tormented, talented boy for Katie Greene.

I was very keen to read this when I heard it was a fantasy novel set in modern-day Japan, because after I finished uni I lived and worked in Japan for about three years (until early 2005), and I love reading stories set there (especially by Japanese authors). Often when I’m reading YA books from America, they have some Spanish in them, which I know nothing of and can barely pronounce. And when I read adult novels, I often come across French words and sentences or expressions, which I can sometimes figure out, sometimes not, and my pronunciation is atrocious. I always feel left out, like I’m missing nuances and cultural references and so on, and not getting the full impact of the story because of it. So as I was reading Ink, I was absolute in love with my ability to pronounce all the Japanese words (I’m terrible at learning languages and have forgotten much that I did learn while there, but the one thing I was really good at was pronunciation! Japanese is actually quite easy to pronounce once you learn the very simple rules), and I was able to recognise and understand a lot of the words and expressions. After always feeling left out as I mentioned above, I had a kind of heady rush of exhilaration – that sensation of being included, of being “in” on the joke, so to speak. The cultural references were all familiar to me, I “got” all the details and their importance, socially-speaking, and yet there were still some things new to me that meant I could learn from it. It’s clear that Amanda Sun has spent considerable time in Japan and has a far greater ability with the language than I ever did!

There were other aspects of the novel that I really liked. I liked Katie, most of the time – she sometimes slipped into whiny-YA-heroine mode for no apparent reason, it didn’t even seem to really gel with her character – and she came across as a bit, well, a bit aggressive or bull-headed at times. And she existed in a sort of vacuum: we learn nothing about who she was prior to coming to Japan, what kind of person she was, what her interests are, so there’s no contrast or real understanding of her character. Yet I really liked watching her adapt and even embrace living in Japan. She went way out of her comfort zone and was richly rewarded.

I took my black chopsticks and lifted the leftover croquettes from my bentou into my mouth. The taste of peanut-butter sandwiches had drifted away with my old life. I wondered who I was then, when I couldn’t speak or read or eat, totally immobilized by the change in my world. Vines were entangling the hole in my heart, buds sprouting on the outskirts. There was still a void, a pocket of emptiness. But around it, my heart was blooming.

I enjoyed the Japanese characters too, though they weren’t as well fleshed out, especially Katie’s friends at school, Yuki and Tanaka. They were sadly one-dimensional, Katie’s “token” friends. Tomohiro was a much more vivid character, which is just as well because in many ways, he carries the story. The other key male characters were Tomo’s friend and yakuza wannabe, Ishikawa; and Jun, a boy Katie meets on the subway who turns up at other times just when she needs the help. There’s was always something a bit suspicious about Jun, and the revelations at the end worked well with the impression of his character I’d already built in my mind.

While the pacing was good and there wasn’t an overload of exposition – explaining Japanese elements, for instance – to bog it down (explanations were given when needed, and were slipped in quite naturally I thought), there were weaknesses to the story. The fantasy side of the premise and plot, which had initially appealed to me, failed to really excite me in the end. It just didn’t really go anywhere. Once Katie learns about the kami and what Tomo can actually do, she doesn’t really learn anything new about it, and so the fantasy element stagnated a bit. There is some exciting and dangerous scenes, but they somehow lacked the desired impact. And while I enjoyed the character of Tomo and there were moments when he felt real and vibrant to me, overall the connection between him and Katie lacked the kind of chemistry you’d want to feel when you get two characters in their situation. There’s tension, but also a great deal of distance. Perhaps the tricky part is maintaining his Japanese-ness while satisfying a non-Japanese audience. Romance Japanese-style isn’t like romance, Western-style.

This is going to be a bit of a hard sell to a white Western audience, I think, and that will be a shame, because there’s a lot of potential here, a lot of exciting new ideas, and some great writing. Some of Tomohiro’s drawings are shown in the book and there’s some flip-page animation which you can’t get the full benefit of when reading this on an e-reader as I did: I’m going to have to pick this up in a bookshop and check out the illustrations in person. Bottom line? Absolutely give this a go. It’s genuine and different and has moments of excellence, and it just might be different enough to win you over. Or maybe not – it could be that I’m more in love with the Japanese setting than anything else, and that has distracted me from its larger flaws. It didn’t wholly satisfy me in the end, but I am curious about where the story is going from here.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.


Other Reviews:

Ink felt very familiar to me, the unique setting of Japan was not enough to stand out to me. The writing was well done, aspects of the story were interesting but I could not look past the similarities to other YA books and overall predictability.” My Friends Are Fiction

“I really respect Sun’s choice to take a leap of faith and write about something else than vampires or werewolves, because the idea of ancient gods is just brilliant and it turned out to work really well. Even though I enjoyed plot a lot, I feel like something was missing. I don’t know what it is or is it just because I wasn’t a great fan of Katie, but I just can’t bring myself to give it five star, or even four.” Anonymous Aficionados

“The reason INK was so bad was because it was so average. There wasn’t anything unique about it other than the premise of paper gods. It’s a very standard YA paranormal romance that deviates very little from the set of “rules” that much of the genre follows.” Assorted Insanity

“Overall I liked the story; it had good and rough spots. It was a bit slow at times, but I think it’s a great read for someone open to new experiences.” Escape By Fiction

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