One of my Christmas gifts this year was a subscription to one of those geek-loot blind boxes, specifically one that focused on YA fiction. I eagerly awaited my first crate of goodies throughout January, and finally, near the end of the month, it arrived, bringing with it Worlds of Ink and Shadow by Lena Coakley.
Vague spoilers for the book below.
Worlds of Ink and Shadow is part historical fiction, part fantasy novel, inspired by the real-life Brontë siblings. It imagines that the siblings—the three sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and their brother Branwell—had been gifted as children with the ability to magically visit the grand worlds they created in their stories. As they grow into their teens, however, the consequences of the bargain they’d struck to gain this power start to come home to roost in a terrifying way, and the characters they’ve created start to gain minds of their own. When they try to swear off visiting their invented worlds for good, they start seeing painful and tragic real life consequences, and they have to make a final stand against Old Tom, the fairy with whom they’d contracted their bargain, to escape once and for all.
While I enjoyed the story of the book overall, I felt that the four-way split point of view, switching between siblings each chapter, took away from the potential character growth of each of them. Emily in particular I felt suffered; I didn’t feel any particular connection to her romantic plotline with the siblings’ villain character, and her arguments with Charlotte over who could visit the worlds and when rang a little petty. The best characterization, I felt, came at the end of the story, when the invented characters had realized their fictional-ness and were rebelling against their creators. Maybe it’s just my shipper heart at work, but the heroic Duke of Zamorna and the villainous Alexander Rogue had better romantic chemistry in the ten pages when they were challenging the Brontës together than Zamorna ever did with his waifish wife, or, indeed, Rogue had with Emily.
My biggest issue, however, was the use of the Brontës at all. The story isn’t necessarily disrespectful to the real lives of the Brontës—rather, very little is known about their lives growing up and the narrative of Worlds of Ink and Shadow slots neatly into that void. On the flip side of that, however, it didn’t seem like it was incredibly necessary to use the Brontës and not some random fictional group of siblings. Whether it was left in the historical era or transplanted into modern day, this same story would have worked just as well without the framing device of the Brontës’ actual lives. Having read both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, I don’t think that Zamorna or Rogue parallel Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff directly enough—even taking into account that they’re highly idealized childhood versions of the characters—that the story would fall apart without that context.
One of the reasons I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if it hadn’t been part of the blind box is that on its face, it doesn’t appear to break any ground for representation, on any front. I have limited reading time, and I prefer to spend it reading about someone besides a group of thin white cisgender heterosexuals. Unfortunately, that was the sum total of the book’s characters; even the siblings’ invented character Alexander Rogue, who plays a major role in the story and would presumably go on to be the inspiration for Emily Brontë’s dark-skinned Heathcliff, is not himself dark-skinned. There is an argument to be made that Anne is portrayed as neuroatypical: she has severe anxiety about speaking in front of others, even her family, and a distaste for lying to the extent that even when she visits the invented worlds, she appears as herself rather than conjuring any sort of glamour. Furthermore, it’s fair to the times that she wouldn’t be diagnosed with anything, even if she was neuroatypical in some way. But given the extent of the liberties taken with, you know, adding magic to the story, I don’t think it would have been that much of a stretch to diversify it a bit more.
On a final note about representation, I did appreciate one scene where Anne scolds Charlotte for using Africa in her stories despite knowing next to nothing to about it. “It occurred to [Charlotte] now that perhaps she had no business writing about a place she’d never seen and knew little about”—a sentiment that I wish more modern writers would take to heart. We may need more diverse books, but not at the cost of exoticism and orientalism.
While this isn’t a book I would have picked up if I hadn’t received it as a surprise, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to broaden my horizons once in a while, and it’s not bad to have one’s finger on the pulse of what’s being bought and sold in YA lit these days. This was a fun distraction for a few hours on a day off, for sure, and if you’re into fantastical takes on history then you’ll probably enjoy it. I’m just crossing my fingers that the next blind box book will be more my speed.
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