November 10, 2005


Inkspell. By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $19.99.

Poison. By Chris Wooding. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     The notion of a story exploring relationships between author and characters is nothing new, as anyone who has read Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, will attest.  But books likes these two, giving younger readers a chance to explore the tricky territory of creator/creation relationships, are quite unusual.  It takes a fine author to make a book with philosophical underpinnings of this sort more than an empty exercise – and fortunately for readers, both these authors qualify.

     Cornelia Funke remains better known in her native Germany than she is in North America, but the consistently high quality of her magic-permeated, alternative-reality fantasies should change that.  Inkspell is a sequel to Inkheart, a story about a book whose characters come to life and invade the reader’s world.  In Inkspell, the focus is more strongly on what it means to write words that are literally embodied, and the world-invasion theme works both ways.  The heroine of Inkheart, Meggie, is a major force in Inkspell as well, but not the prime mover of the story.  What happens here is that Dustfinger, a fire-eater brought into being through words and transported to Meggie’s world from his own alternative-medieval reality, desperately wants to return to his original tale.  He finds a storyteller who can send him back – read him back, actually – and departs, leaving behind his young apprentice, Farid.  Farid seeks out Meggie and the two find a way into Dustfinger’s world, where they meet the author of Inkheart, a man named Feroglio. Feroglio is now living within the story he himself created, and finding problems in it that he did not create.  Who did?  That is the mystery at the heart of Inkspell.  Funke gives us characters from two worlds who interpenetrate them both, a story run amok, and a story – Inkspell itself – about the other story.  Juggling all this would be a chore for a lesser writer, and many seams would show, but Funke pulls the whole thing off virtuosically, providing a thrill ride with unusual levels of complexity.

     Poison seems at first a more straightforward book; it is certainly a darker one.  The title is the name of “a young lady who lived in a marsh,” who gives herself the name after her stepmother tells her she is “poison to this family, poison!”  This confrontation, when Poison is 14, leads two years later to a journey both of soul-searching and self-searching, as Poison seeks out her younger sister, Azalea, who has been stolen by the phaeries.  This sounds like a dark fairy tale in the mode of Lord Dunsany, but it soon becomes something more, as Poison finds herself in a supernatural world at war with itself over its most powerful member, the Hierophant – a writer whose words will determine the fate of the entire realm.  An old Antiquarian named Fleet helps guide Poison through what is or may be happening: “The whole story has to be known before it can be recorded; otherwise it might suddenly change.  …When the tale is ended, then the writing will be visible to your eyes; until then, it is unwritten.”  Confusion piles upon complication until Chris Wooding, an adept stylist, unravels the self-references and produces a tie-up-loose-ends final chapter called, of course, “To End the Tale.”  Complex and thoughtful, Poison is a bracing mental tonic, a danger only to the dull mind.

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