The premise of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, that some have the ability to call out characters from books by reading aloud, is absolutely wonderful. At first, of course, one thinks how great to have such a talent — to call out Bilbo or Willy Wonka or Aladdin, but what if you couldn’t then return them to their homes — how tragic and cruel for them. Or even worse, what if you couldn’t control your talent, so reading aloud Lord of the Rings might mean you’d get to talk to a hobbit or an elf, but also means you could just as easily be suddenly facing a troll or an orc or even worse, Sauron himself. Adding another achingly sharp layer, what if whatever was called up from the book didn’t simply appear but has to replace someone else in your world so that your best friend or father or mother got sent into the book world?
All of this is great fodder for a novel, opening up literally limitless characters. Unfortunately, Inkheart falls short in the execution. The story’s main plot involves the struggle between the 12 year old main character (Meggie) and her father (Mo) and an evil villain (Capricorn) and his henchmen whom Mo accidentally “read” into being years ago, losing Meggie’s mother into the book in turn. The villain is bent on turning Mo’s talent to evil intent and will stop at nothing to get Mo in his power.
Or at least, so we’re told, though to be honest, for all the many sentences about how evil Capricorn is, how sadistic his chief henchman is, by the middle of the book, their actions come across as less “evil” than bullying. Sure there are a lot of threats and abductions and hurling of people into “the crypt”, but when nothing more untoward happens and when this sort of thing gets repeated several times, the villains tend to lose their bite. Perhaps this is due to the young age the book might be aimed at, though in that case the earlier descriptions of Capricorn’s potential for horror should probably be downplayed as well.
The story begins when Mo learns from Dustfinger (another character from Capricorn’s world accidentally brought into ours) that Capricorn has learned of his hiding place and is seeking both Mo and supposedly the only surviving copy of Capricorn’s book. Mo, Meggie, and Dustfinger flee to Meggie’s Aunt’s house, filled with thousands of books. Without giving away too much, there is a betrayal, Mo is abducted as is Meggie eventually. Then there are escapes and then more abductions. The plot seems to circle around the same setting and even the same actions, never spiraling far from repetition, and because the villains are not particularly convincing as villains, the victories and defeats don’t create much tension.
Along the way there are a few nice plot turns, such as when the author of Capricorn’s book makes an appearance, but predictability returns shortly. The characterization is relatively weak. As mentioned, the villains are not all that believable as villains, and Meggie and Mo, while sympathetic, are a bit two-dimensional. They gain our sympathies more through tried and true plot (the missing mother, the abducted daughter) than through depth of feeling or character. Funke is at her strongest in the creation of her middling characters — Dustfinger, Meggie’s aunt, and a young boy pulled from yet another novel in a “test run” for what is to be Mo’s big work for Capricorn. These characters, neither wholly good or wholly evil, are more complex and thus add a level of complexity and unpredictability, bringing a refreshing air here and there into the story. They are not enough, however, and in plot, character and final resolution, Inkheart remains mostly predictable and static, lacking the richness of character, story, and description found in Funke’s previous effort, The Thief Lord.
If the bad news is that Inkheart is somewhat disappointing in many ways, the good news is that Inkspell, the second book in the series, is in every way worlds better. So while I wouldn’t recommend Inkheart as a standalone book very strongly, I would highly recommend people read it and move right on to Inkspell, whose qualities more than make up for the weaknesses of the first book. Therefore, recommended highly not for itself, but for its sequel.
Inkheart — (2003-2008) Ages 9-12. Publisher: One cruel night, Meggie’s father reads aloud from a book called Inkheart — and an evil ruler escapes the boundaries of fiction and lands in their living room. Suddenly, Meggie is smack in the middle of the kind of adventure she has only read about in books. Meggie must learn to harness the magic that has conjured this nightmare. For only she can change the course of the story that has changed her life forever. This is Inkheart — a timeless tale about books, about imagination, about life. Dare to read it aloud.