(Published in The New Indian Express, School Edition, on 12 September, retrieved from http://expressbuzz.com/school/a-world-to-get-lost-in/312964.html)
It’s hard to figure out what one can reveal about Cornelia Funke’s Inkworld Trilogy without giving away the plot. And at a time when fantasy largely draws from Tolkien or Enid Blyton – or both – and an original idea is hard to find, the concept underlying this series will take you by surprise, if you haven’t read the blurb of its first novel, Inkheart (released in 2003). So, I’ll only say the reader may find himself or herself involved more deeply in the book than s/he planned to.
The story begins ordinarily enough, with twelve-year-old Meggie Folchart playing apprentice to her single father, Mo the Bookbinder. The manner in which Mo cures old books, tending to their broken spines and brittle pages, is described beautifully. So is the relationship between father and daughter, who make a livelihood from their love for books.
When a strange man lands up, wanting to meet Mo, Meggie gets worried, because for the first time, her father clams up and refuses to confide in her. The fallout of the visit leads Meggie to the real reason her mother abandoned the family when the little girl was three years old, and in their mission to bring her back, the Folcharts become the targets of a mafia-like gang.
It is a story of blackmail, cruelty, deceit and shrewdness. But what sets the series apart is that it respects young adults, and doesn’t treat them like children who want a happy ending. The characters who die, stay dead. The characters who are wounded, stay maimed. There is no magical intervention that makes everything all right.
The characters are not caricatures either. Each of the major ones is shown to be three-dimensional. From the aunt who dislikes children but loves books, to the fire-eater who leads the villain to his victims and then risks his life to rescue them, and from the cruel goon who chews peppermint because a girl he had a crush on said he had bad breath, to the nervous stammerer who finds a soul mate in a boisterous, cranky old lady, the people in the book are as hard to classify as real human beings.
Through its sequels Inkspell (released in 2006) and Inkdeath (released in 2008), we move to yet another world, and meet both frightening and loveable creatures. But the series becomes progressively sinister – while the first book seems to balance out evil deeds with good ones, and happy turns with sad ones, the last one is rather dark. Some critics think this have been the author’s attempt to give her audience, which was growing up along with the characters, something new, perhaps more suited to their moods and preoccupations.
If I had to pick a favourite among the three books, it would be the first, closely followed by Inkspell. Inkheart is carefully written, with each event building towards the climax, though it is rather slow-paced. Inkspell is exciting, and with a horde of new characters, seems to fly by. Inkdeath can be disappointing after the first two, because it tries to explore heavy philosophical questions, through what comes across as a Hollywood-inspired plot.
But the author’s ability to maintain suspense throughout the series, introduce new twists in the plot and fresh characters whenever the story tends to lag, the simple yet evocative language – credit for which may be due to the translator Anthea Bell – and the exquisite illustrations make the Inkworld Trilogy a delightful read.