Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book Review: Cornelia Funke's Inkheart Trilogy

I have "read" several books as audiobooks in the last few years, many of which I would not have the time to read otherwise.  Some of the best of the lot have been by Cornelia Funke.  She is a German writer, but her works have been lyrically translated into English and there has even been a major motion picture (although, as almost always happens, it isn't as good as the books).  Advanced readers of any age will like her Inkheart trilogy, which is directed at the juvenile market but may be long and deep enough to dissuade younger or more struggling readers.  There is also an emotional intensity and menacing sense of evil that may disturb some younger readers; but the books are largely free of objectionable material found in many "young adult" books.

In Inkheart, (audiobook ably read by Lynn Redgrave) we meet Meggie and her father, Mo, a bookbinder with the disturbing ability to read characters out of, and real people into, books.  This is, in fact, what happened to Meggie's mother long ago; Dustfinger, a displaced character from the Inkworld, is searching for the man who might be able to put things right again.  But so is the ultimate bad guy, Capricorn, and he has been written to be the ultimate bad guy.  The ability to read people ... and things like treasure ... out of storybooks makes Mo the man everyone wants to control.  Meggie and her father join forces with her bibliophile aunt Elinor to find Fenoglio, the author of the obscure book that started it all.  The adventure ranges all over Europe to its culmination in a medieval Italian village.

The second book of the series, Inkspell, continues the not-quite-resolved issues from the first book; although really, the first book ends at a satisfying point and the sequel was not strictly necessary.  Once it has begun, though, and we are drawn with the main characters into the fantasy world of Inkheart, it imprisons us there, in a world which is lovely to read about but not quite so lovely to experience firsthand.  New villains (Mortola, the Adderhead) arise to prominence and new characters add their complexity to a storyline that begins to escape the control of the fictitious author, Fenoglio.  This book is darker than the first, more frightening to read, and does not deliver a completely satisfying ending; by this time the real author knew that a third book would be written.  The book-within-a-book theme is further developed, but some readers will be put off by the themes of suffering and fated death.  Brendan Fraser does the reading for the audiobook: he played Mo in the movie and delights in a whimsical portrayal of the various characters (If you enjoy Fraser's voice performance, perhaps an even better, standalone Funke audiobook is Dragonrider).

The third book, Inkdeath, attempts to bring order to the chaotic situation in the Inkworld.  There are so many characters by this time and so many dark, confusing and sometimes conflicting storylines, and it had been so long since I had listened to the second book, that I'm glad it was an audiobook or I would have given up.  But, with all that said, the development of the characters and the plot, once it finally gets close to the denouement, is superb.  You feel like it's a bit of a slog getting there, though.  Part of it is intentional: the theme of how to redeem a cursed story where everything is going wrong is prominent in this book even more than the others.  Modern fantasy authors like to tease their readers -- will this be one of those authors who kill off main characters and leave you in a depressed (pardon the bad pun) funk?  Thankfully, this is not.  The resolution of this book, although some characters do get short shrift, is satisfying in a classical way, while at the same time inventive and new.  I came away from the audiobook (read by Allan Corduner, who has an impressive list of audiobook credits) feeling happy that I had ventured into the Inkworld and met its engaging characters.

In a way it is easier for those of us who grew up passionately devoted to books and reading to separate fantasy from reality in reading these books.  We know quite well that it is impossible to bring characters from a book to life by reading aloud, or we would have done it ourselves by now.  So it is easier to appreciate the Inkheart trilogy for what it is: an homage to books and book lovers everywhere, and an exploration of what life might be like if fantasy and reality did collide.  Perhaps drawn out a bit too long, perhaps taking too many characters in too many different directions, it is still a delightful and memorable read... or listen. 

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