This was one of the books that I scooped up from Kristen (she is bowing out for the rest of Round 1 due to serious personal tragedies). There are a few more from her batch I need to read but I wanted to slam this review out fast while it’s fresh in my mind.
The first line and opening of this book — I loved the atmosphere, tone, and tension which was built in just a sentence or two. One of the prevailing themes for me throughout this book was, “this is a debut?” It feels much more practiced than a first go-around, and I’ve already bought the second book.
Okay, Esme, so what’s it about?
We’ve got a gas lamp atmosphere with old school hand-wavey kind of magic that not many people posses. Our main character, Ink, is a 15 year old kid who everyone presumes is an orphan. In fact, this past is fairly mysterious and you still don’t know at the end of the book what his origins truly are, just that he’s been separated from his family and Ink doesn’t know if they’re alive or dead. He’s a spunky kid with a chip on his shoulder, able to fend for himself and smart, but still makes impulsive 15 year old decisions. It’s a tightrope balance for me with characters like this. It’s so easy to lean too far one way or the other and turn a character into a cartoon. I felt like the balance here was deft and I never wobbled with my enjoyment of his character.
Ink has found himself in quite the predicament, as kids in these books tend to do. He took an odd-job investigating a strange death of a seemingly unimportant old man who could have been someone important indeed. The old man who died could be a Colonist, a name that strikes fear into the hearts of all the Cassrians (Ink’s people). You’re not sure why at first and I’ll let you all read and find out, but the Colonists are supposedly terrible people and they are being hunted down as fugitives. So, Ink almost gets caught rummaging around in the old man’s house and gets away — or he thought he did. The humans many not have noticed him, but the Spectors did.
Spectors are ghosts from really angry people who have died, ghosts that can sometimes haunt your soul and crush it a little bit at a time, turning people dark, bitter, and angry. Ink somehow catches the attention of these Spectors that don’t usually take any interest in children, thought not to be jaded enough to draw them in with feelings of despair and hatred. Just as he’s about to be attacked by a Spector, a group rushes in to save him. Or kidnap him. Or maybe it’s both? Ink doesn’t know — and I’ll leave it there as far as the plot.
There are some side characters, too. Spindler is an older gentleman who works for or perhaps owns a newspaper, I can’t recall that detail. He hired Ink to go and look in the old man’s house, suspecting there might be a story there. Well, Spindler is a good guy and so after the group of people who perhaps saved the kid, perhaps kidnapped the kid, he went to the authorities for help to try and get Ink back. He tries to enlist the help of an Entrean, a race of people who can use magic — and this is our third and smallest POV for this book, Seterline. I audiobooked this, so that name (and others) might not be correct. My apologies.
I’d say the biggest strength of this book was the prose. From the first page I knew this was going to click with me as far as the writing style. It created such amazing imagery and atmosphere in my head which is so very difficult for me to find since I struggle with visualization. I felt like the prose had a definite style without beating me over the head with it. The dialogue was smooth, I felt like the scene transition was natural, and if I had any quibble at all it would be that the middle slowed down a bit for me. Not a lot, it was a time to get to know the side characters and so there wasn’t a terrible amount of ‘plot’ going on and it was more character building.
So, that brings me to my second and I think last quibble about the book — the character work for the POVs was fantastic, some of the side characters felt a little character-typey, though. Particularly the leader of the band that kidnapped Ink, he’s the very stereotypical Grumpy Leader With A Sad And Grey Past. That said, a little bit of formulaic storytelling can give a nostalgia feeling to something that’s brand new and many people enjoy that. I can definitely enjoy it as long as it’s not so formulaic that it becomes predictable and boring, and I didn’t find that to be the case here.
The world building was so neat, I really enjoyed learning more as we went along and I enjoyed it all the more since most of it was not done via infodumps. Much of what you learn is left up to the reader to figure out through context, this book was great at showing and not telling. There were a few places here and there were an info dump occurred, but they were sparing, it made sense in context, and we were far along in the plot and character development that I had space in my head to care about the world, if that makes sense. I don’t like world building shoved in my face up front. I want to know the characters first so then I can invest in whatever else is going on.
Overall, super strong book. This is a gas-lamp coming of age story and usually that is not my bag at all. However, this was very much so a great read and I hope others check it out. The audiobook was just fantastic. This book is safe for SPFBO purposes as of the publishing of this review.