Book Review

Ink Exchange by Melissa Marr

B

Title: Ink Exchange
Author: Melissa Marr
Publication Info: HarperTeen April 2008
ISBN: 9780061214684
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy, Young Adult

Melissa Marr’s publicist at HarperCollins, also named Melissa, has been gifted with a heaping spoonful of Wisdom Pixie Dust, because after I wrote about the absurdity that was Jane Henderson’s review at the St. Louis Post Dispatch stating that Marr’s novel was a “knock off” of Laurell K. Hamilton, she sent me an ARC of Ink Exchange.

How could I resist the opportunity to find out if indeed Marr’s novel about teens mixed up with faeries outside Pittsburgh does indeed feature over-sexualization of teen girls that may lead to teen pregnancy, or the profound oversexxoring that would lead to a valid comparison of Hamilton’s Merry Gentry series? I couldn’t.

Now that I’ve read the book, I have to say, this book isn’t a knock off of anything I’ve read, unless there’s a giant designer purse made up of meaningful, emotionally wrenching YA storytelling from which this book snatched a tassel. There is no question in my mind that Jane Henderson’s opinion is so wrong, it’s not even in the same county as right.

Ink Exchange begins with another look at a scene from Wicked Lovely in which Aislinn, the heroine of Wicked Lovely, sees a faery walk into the local tattoo parlor and touch a steel case, something that faeries are not supposed to be able to do. In Ink Exchange, you find out who that faery is, and why he can touch metal and not be sickened by it.

Leslie is a friend of Aislinn’s, and in the prologue, Irial, the faery from the tattoo parlor, is watching her. He calls her a “lovely broken toy.” That pretty much sums up Leslie: she’s desperately trying to recover her own health and happiness after an assault perpetrated by someone she ought to be able to trust. Her attempt to reclaim herself centers around acquiring a tattoo, and she’s frustrated in her efforts to find the perfect image. Like many women who pursue ink, she wants to reclaim her body for her self. She wants something unique, that won’t appear on the skin of anyone else, and when Rabbit, the tattoo artist, shows her a book of drawings of his own design, one image speaks to her and, in a way that alarms her slightly, demands that she choose it. Ultimately, that tattoo links her in a dangerous, addictive, damaging and symbiotic relationship with Irial, and in the course of identifying what that relationship is and whether she wants it, Leslie realizes how weakened, and how strong, she truly is.

Leslie’s choice to use a tattoo to reclaim her body is understandable, but when that tattoo and the forces behind it turn on her and claim her body for the use of someone else, her own choice becomes another assault without her consent. Exploring consent and assault through the tattoo allows the reader to examine the larger issues of consent and assault operating within Leslie’s backstory, and the whole book is layer upon layer of parallels.

One of Henderson’s concerns was whether 12 year old girls ought to read this book. My answer: “Without equivocation: Fuck, yeah.” The story explores themes that will give a young woman entering puberty a buffet of crucial topics to think about, topics that become particularly important because around 12 years old, my hormones hit the highway to Pueblo Loca and I was batshit miserable through most of it. This book is about so many layered and devastating things that affect teenagers, including sex, sexual assault, autonomy, addiction, strength, power, powerlessness, and how easy it is for damaged children to be taken advantage of by those with agendas of their own.

The skilled depth and layering of the story is unfortunately undermined by some aspects of the execution. The dialogue can slide from enigmatic to pretentiously vague with disturbing ease, and there’s a dramatic self-consciousness to the narration and the characters themselves that reminds me of teenage angst and drama, which made the already-painful storyline a bit more difficult to read, though the tone is in keeping with the age of the protagonists. The mortal ones, anyway.

The mortal wrongdoers who harm Leslie also for the most part disappear, and no closure is granted for the reader or for Leslie – at least, none that is disclosed – and while the paranormal characters do experience their own denouement and conclusion. The significance of the fact that Leslie wants very much to return to the mortal world from her involvement with the faery world is diminished by the focus on the faery characters, (spoilers ahead: highlight text to read it)

and in the final scenes, Leslie is a background character, once again used to highlight and underscore Irial’s significance. Relegating Leslie to the background, to be commented on by other characters, did not sit at all well with me since the story is as much about Leslie’s recovery of her self and her autonomy as it is about the faery courts operating around and through her.

The other aspect that irritated me was that so many of the ancillary characters knew what had happened to Leslie before the novel began, and did nothing. They just knew, and watched her suffer, and did nothing. On one hand, their inaction was somewhat understandable seeing that, faery-involved or not, the protagonists of this series are teenagers, who are not powerful by any stretch, particularly these teenagers who operate largely without sound parental guidance or presence.

On the other hand, even within powerlessness, there is the opportunity to help her, and not one of them took it. I may be picturing my own teenage life through tinted happy glasses but I’d like to think that if I knew a friend had suffered the way Leslie did, I would have found some way to help, or at least let that person know I would help them find safety.

Finally, a word of warning to those who come to this site looking for romance reviews. This isn’t a romance. (spoilers ahead: highlight text to read it)

There’s not a happy ending for Leslie in the sense that a romance reader may be looking for, though the situation in which the book leaves her is entirely appropriate and optimistic.

This is not the same style of faery tale as Wicked Lovely and readers expecting more of the same of that novel will not necessarily find it.

It’s hard to describe concisely what this book is about. On the surface it’s about a girl who gets a tattoo and finds herself mixed up in multiple faery courts. But it’s also about a girl recovering her autonomy after assault, and her right to choose to feel overwhelming pain rather than have it taken from her without her consent. It’s about addiction, and about how choosing pain often means choosing to live, but it’s mostly about how brave, adult, and courageous a decision it is to make that pain-full choice for yourself.

Henderson’s assertions that 12 year old girls ought not read this book because of her mistaken perception as to the sexuality within the story are infuriating in light of the manner in which this book explores profoundly important issues. I can think of few books that should be required reading for teenage girls, but this is certainly one of them. It’s painful, and it’s important.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Kristen says:

    I loved this book. For me, the fact that her friends didn’t help her only re-enforced the message that the fairies, for all their beauty and power, are not trustworthy creatures. They’re not mortal, and mortal concerns aren’t high on their priorities. (Although Aislinn regrets not trying to warn Leslie about Irial later in the book – it’s still too little, too late.)

    No it’s not a traditional romance, but there is something to be said for the reality of a bittersweet ending. And that won’t stop me from hoping things might be resolved in one of the next books.

    All in all, I liked this book even a little more than Wicked Lovely.

  2. 2
    Natalie says:

    I read this book yesterday and my feelings were much the same as yours—to me, it’s a book about survival and consent and recovery than it is about anything else.  I haven’t read the first book in the series, but I’m quite glad to have read this one.

  3. 3
    Barb Ferrer says:

    So essentially, Henderson’s review was definitely right up there with Maxim’s *coughreviewhackcough* of the Black Crowes’ new CD?

    In that, “barely skimmed it but I’ll review it anyway” sort of way?

    I’ve got Marr’s books on the TBR pile for after I’m done with revisions on my new one.  They sound fascinating.

  4. 4

    Perhaps if you sent your review to the paper that ran Henderson’s article they would print it?  I’d love to see that happen!

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    A reader asked that I post this comment anonymously on her behalf:


    …[T]his quote:

    The other aspect that irritated me was that so many of the ancillary characters knew what had happened to Leslie before the novel began, and did nothing. They just knew, and watched her suffer, and did nothing. On one hand, their inaction was somewhat understandable seeing that, faery-involved or not, the protagonists of this series are teenagers, who are not powerful by any stretch, particularly these teenagers who operate largely without sound parental guidance or presence.

    On the other hand, even within powerlessness, there is the opportunity to help her, and not one of them took it. I may be picturing my own teenage life through tinted happy glasses but I’d like to think that if I knew a friend had suffered the way Leslie did, I would have found some way to help, or at least let that person know I would help them find safety.

    caught my attention.

    My sister and I were emotionally, verbally, and physically abused by various stepmothers and sexually abused by our father. The fact that other characters know what is going with Leslie and do nothing does not surprise me and, in fact, strikes me as very realistic.

    It may be different now than when I was young, but I think a great many people generally rationalize not getting involved for a great many reasons.  Because they don’t want to cause trouble or they don’t want the abuser(s) to get in trouble, for instance.  Or because they tell themselves that it isn’t what they think it is or that they are imagining things.  I know for a fact that most of my family knew what was going on with the emotional, verbal, and physical abuse because we told them and they talked to my father about it.  In fact, my grandmother let me move in with her the last 3 months that I lived at home before going into the Air Force so that my dad could “keep the peace” with my current stepmother.  Of course, no one ever did anything about it other than talking, for the most part, even after my sister ended up in a mental facility for 6 months.  As for the sexual abuse, two of my stepmothers knew about it, as did my best friend and at least one teacher that I told.  Nothing was ever said about it other than my current stepmother telling me that I was a slut. 

    My best friend was in a similar predicament as her mother was offering her up to “friends”, including a whole summer with one couple on their farm in the middle of nowhere.  (She told my friend that she was “old enough to get experience and might as well learn how to do it right—she was 14.)  She told the same teacher that I told (it was in the autobiographies that we were assigned to write.)  The teacher never mentioned our autobiographies to either of us.  I got a B+.

    So, in my experience, I don’t think it’s that uncommon for people to know and do nothing.

    -Anonymous

  6. 6
    SonomaLass says:

    She told the same teacher that I told (it was in the autobiographies that we were assigned to write.) The teacher never mentioned our autobiographies to either of us.  I got a B+.

    Dear Anonymous,

    On behalf of teachers everywhere who assign or receive autobiographical writing from students,  I’m so sorry!  The adults in your lives let you, your sister and your friend down, which in my book is inexcusable.

    Fortunately the legal changes in this area, including mandatory reporting standards, are making it easier for authority figures like teachers, doctors, ministers and counselors to do the right thing when dealing with abused children.

    As for getting help from peers, that comment in SB Sarah’s review, I may be picturing my own teenage life through tinted happy glasses but I’d like to think that if I knew a friend had suffered the way Leslie did, I would have found some way to help, or at least let that person know I would help them find safety, led me to a very interesting discussion with my own teenage daughter.  In her opinion, a real friend would let someone know that she cared and was willing to try to help, but would wait to be asked, because everyone needs to deal with these things in her own way.

    I asked my terrific kid how she would go about that, and her response was so typical that I just had to post it:

    “hey leslie, look, i know this is a weird thing to just come out and say but i care about you so i’m going to do it: if you ever want me to tell anyone or if you just want me to sit and listen, i’ll do either for you”

    Sarah, thanks for highlighting this book and its issues.  You done good.

  7. 7
    Denni says:

    Yeah, but isn’t that why so many of people are looking elsewhere (like here and other online sources), because many of the mainstream critics & reviewers have made themselves irrelevent? 

    Is it just me, or am I seeing more of these ignorant, bigoted, and poorly read book critics?  Why is it that any vampire or fairy book is now considered a knock off of LKH? yesh.

    Haven’t read this yet, but Wicked Lovely doesn’t remind me of LKH at all.  I’ve stumbled across several knock-offs & wouldn’t consider one to be Melissa Marr.

  8. 8
    LDH says:

    Fresh out of the oven Brownie Points for Melissa the Publicist; after this review I am definitely going to read both of Marr’s books.

    I started reading ahead of my age early, so when it came to reading YA’s I always figured that, “If I can appreciate regular adult books, why should I read books for teens?”

    Yeah, I was an idiot. 

    Then I read your review for “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”, borrowed it, absolutely loved it, and realized how much I’ve been missing.

    So now, at 18, I’m discovering how wonderful of a genre it is. …Better late than never, right?

    Marr sounds like a great author to check out, so Thanks!

  9. 9
    Fiamme says:

    Echoing LDH – the reviews here have got me delving back into YA territory ;) Nick and Norah was a lovely book, and since then I’ve been seen hanging around the YA section nonchalantly trying to project “I’m just browsing on behalf of my, um, friend. Or daughter. Yes, her…” vibes.

    Loved Wicked Lovely, bought Ink Exchange on the strength of it. And having read the LKH books am more astounded at the original reviewer’s foot in mouth episode than offended.  I quite enjoyed the Merry books (yes, I’m aware of the flaws, still like them) but enjoyed the YA ones more.

    These reviews help me step out of my comfort zone of familiar authors.  Right over into teen-land, which was quite a step.

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