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.