Whilst shopping with friends at Barnes & Noble, I found a single copy of a beautiful book on a shelf amongst the paranormal teen romance section. Unfortunately, being a poor college student, I did not have the luxury funds to buy the book. So I waited, and finally got a gift card and used it to buy Ink by Amanda Sun.
There are many things about this book that caught my attention, because, yes, the teen paranormal romance genre is a little full of your usual unusual stuff. First, kudos to whoever designed the book cover because it is stunning—easily one of the best I’ve ever seen. It captures the essence of the story with our heroine, Katie, on the front with cherry blossoms and dripping ink displaying the title. It’s also worth noting that the jacket itself is unique because it doesn’t have that glossy, mass-produced feel to it, and instead feels like a piece of parchment and looks amazing. Another thing that caught my attention is that the story is set in Japan—I mean, how many YA novels out there take place in Asia? I’ve seen some in Europe, plenty in America, and even one or two in Canada—but Asia? Unique.
So what’s the story?
Ink is about Katie Greene who, after her mother dies, has to move to Shizuoka, Japan to live with her aunt. She goes to a Japanese school, learns and practices speaking the language with her friends, and learns about the history and culture of Japan. Accidentally getting involved in a fight between two other students, she catches the attention of Yuu Tomohiro (last name, first name) and an odd rivalry/friendship/something more begins to develop between them. However, the closer they get the more odd things begin to happen. Drawings seem to move, pens explode, and Katie can see ink dripping all around her. Tomohiro is connected to the Kami—ancient, powerful beings who ruled over Japan—and anyone who learns about his secret could be dangerous, or in danger.
The most powerful aspect of this story, the one that I will sing from the rooftops as one of the best examples in YA fiction, is the setting. Every aspect of the story is soaked in Japanese culture, language, and life. Never for a moment will you forget that you’re in Japan, and you learn so much about the country and people that it’s like reading a travel guide with plot. A lot of the key ‘culture’ moments are here such as the cherry blossom viewings, tea ceremonies, festivals, and the politeness and formality. There’s plenty of Japanese spoken throughout the story (and a handy guide to understanding what they mean if you’re not familiar), but a lot of it is the basic stuff you can pick up from watching anime. You can definitely tell that the author lived in Japan for a time, but also that she did additional research.
What makes the setting so accessible for the reader is that we’re in Katie’s shoes, and she’s as much an outsider as we are. This is a common story device for supernatural or foreign settings, and it really works here. As she’s learning about the customs and traditions we do too. As she has a hard time adjusting, we feel her pain as well. Her grief about her mother’s death and her strained relationship with her aunt create some great tension, since a lot of the story is moving towards the goal of her moving to Canada to live with her grandparents. Her changing relationship with Tomohiro is interesting as it changes from rivalry and curiosity, to friendship, to something more.
Tomohiro, while coming across as a Edward Cullen-esque figure for some of the story due to the whole “I have this dangerous secret and I care too much for you to know” stuff, is a fascinating character. He carries the weight of this power, this huge part of his identity, and the grief over his mother’s death as well. He comes across as a violent punk at first, but slowly becomes a caring, sensitive person who hides everything to protect everyone.
The other characters (Yuki, Tanaka, Aunt Diane, Ishikawa, Jun) are all great and add some nice background to Tomohiro and Katie’s relationship (that is the main focus of the book). Yuki and Tanaka are great friends to Katie, especially since she feels ostracized for being a foreigner. Aunt Diane and Katie are often on different pages because of their schedules and because they didn’t spend much time together before Katie moved to Japan, but their changing attitudes about each other and learning is one of the great things about the book. Ishikawa, a suitable antagonist, brings the dark side of Japan to the story—representing both the beauty and underside of the country. Jun, a mysterious but friendly figure, develops into one of the leading characters and a surprise twist to the story.
I will say that if you’ve watched a lot of anime in your life then quite a few of the devices and plotlines will be familiar to you. There’s a scene where she jumps on a wall to yell at Tomohiro and he points out that he can see her underwear—a familiar trope from many anime and manga—but those kind of scenes aren’t that many. Most of the time is spent developing Tomohiro and Katie as characters, molding their relationship, exploring the supernatural mystery, and painting the beautiful country of Japan.
Another unique aspect of the story is that there are illustrations. If you thought your days of books with pictures were over, fear not! There are illustrations here and there, adding to the story instead of taking it away, and all are drawings that tie in with the plot. It also helps that they’re all beautiful. Each chapter starts with some illustration on the page, and then there are also cherry blossoms or birds on some of the pages.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book. If you’re looking for the next thing in YA supernatural romance then this is it—we’ve moved past Greek gods and into Japanese deities. If you like books with romance that fights for itself then this is it. If you’re curious about Japanese culture and life, this is a great travel guide with plot to boot. The characters are engaging and interesting, not those tropes familiar to American YA, and, as I said, the setting is so beautiful to imagine. If you’re going to read some YA this summer then this should be on the reading list, for sure.
It’s a beautiful book to look at, and even more beautiful to read.