Genres: Fantasy, Contemporary or Urban Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Bisexual biracial/latina MC, F/F, bisexual MC
PoV: Third-person, past-tense, multiple PoVs
Published on: 30th May 2023
In this spellbinding debut novel, two estranged half-sisters tasked with guarding their family's library of magical books must work together to unravel a deadly secret at the heart of their collection--a tale of familial loyalty and betrayal, and the pursuit of magic and power.
For generations, the Kalotay family has guarded a collection of ancient and rare books. Books that let a person walk through walls or manipulate the elements--books of magic that half-sisters Joanna and Esther have been raised to revere and protect.
All magic comes with a price, though, and for years the sisters have been separated. Esther has fled to a remote base in Antarctica to escape the fate that killed her own mother, and Joanna's isolated herself in their family home in Vermont, devoting her life to the study of these cherished volumes. But after their father dies suddenly while reading a book Joanna has never seen before, the sisters must reunite to preserve their family legacy. In the process, they'll uncover a world of magic far bigger and more dangerous than they ever imagined, and all the secrets their parents kept hidden; secrets that span centuries, continents, and even other libraries . . .
In the great tradition of Ninth House, The Magicians, and Practical Magic, this is a suspenseful and richly atmospheric novel that draws readers into a vast world filled with mystery and magic, romance, and intrigue--and marks the debut of an extraordinary new voice in speculative fiction.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~spellbooks that are literal spells
~a great deal of mirror-magic
~Sir Kiwi = The Most Perfect
~libraries have power
~I am Extremely Invested in the cat
I am one of many readers who enjoy books about books, and I requested Ink Blood Sister Scribe on something of a whim due to that. I was expecting it to be a fun read but probably not an especially memorable one; nothing about the blurb suggested it was going to be a really special book. I figured there was a 50/50 chance that it would end up on my DNF pile.
It did not. Because Ink Blood Sister Scribe is every bit as magical as the spellbooks within its pages.
What struck me immediately was how easy Ink Blood Sister Scribe was to read; the elusive quality of airport thrillers and escapist beach reads, but wrapped around a surprisingly rich centre – a bonbon of a book, ridiculously delicious. Pages turned without effort, drawing me deeper and deeper, anticipation looped around my throat and fear for the characters leaden in my stomach. I was desperately anxious that all these entirely fictional people be okay and get their happy ending; Törzs wastes no time in establishing emotional connections between reader and read, making me far more deeply invested, and much faster, than I’m used to!
One of the ways she does this is by giving every character small quirks of personality that make them seem instantly and deeply human. I don’t think characters need to be likeable, and sometimes they don’t even need to be very interesting, so long as you give them something they’re passionate about, something small enough for the reader to understand, and maybe empathise with. Esther is slowly translating a (non-magical) book in order to connect to the lost side of her heritage; Joanna is trying to make friends with a feral cat and convince him to come inside and live with her. Small things, human things, that mean such a lot on an individual level that we can’t help being drawn in to the characters’ passion for them.
Story-wise, the blurb is a bit misleading; the death of Esther and Joanna’s father isn’t really a catalyst, so much as the removable of an obstacle that allows Esther and Joanna to finally discover things he chose to keep from them. The actual catalyst is Esther; at 18, she was told by her father that she had to run, and keep running. Magic doesn’t work on Esther, for some inexplicable reason, which means the wards that kept her family safe didn’t function while she was within them. So she had to leave to keep her family safe. But there’s a rule: she can only spend a year in any one place. Come November 2nd, 11pm Eastern Standard Time, Esther must run again; spend 24 hours moving, before settling in a new place.
Why? Because if she doesn’t, the people who murdered her mother will find her. So Esther’s followed the rule faithfully – until the start of Ink Blood Sister Scribe, when her relationship with the (extremely awesome) Pearl is judged too precious to abandon.
So she doesn’t run.
That’s what kicks the story off.
I flew through this book, and massively resented anything that took me away from it. Törzs’ prose is light, almost breezy at times, but without sacrificing thematic meatiness or some seriously complex character dynamics. Despite dealing with some majorly dark themes, this is a book that made me laugh over and over, both when the characters themselves were being funny and with the marvellous turns of phrase Törzs whips out that just nail some deep and ridiculous aspect of the human condition;
the closet of her sexual subconscious was full of petticoats.
He’d never felt so passionately all-caps about another person
I mean, you know exactly what she means with these two lines! They’re funny and more than a little ridiculous and you get it instantly, because yes, that is exactly the right way to describe The Thing. These lines are two of my favourite examples, but there are plenty more; I had to take many brief pauses to read certain passages aloud to my husband, else he’d have no idea why I was cackling my head off.
“He’s British,” Lisa said to Collins. It sounded accusatory.
“So was Bowie.”
Lisa put a hand to her heart. “Touché.”
The story itself is…wonderful. I don’t want to say much about it – and I strongly suggest you try to avoid any other reviews that go into detail about it – because the twists and reveals strike like lightning, and that is something you should definitely experience for yourself. I was able to see precisely one (1) twist coming, and it was a fairly minor and obvious one; all the rest left me gaping. If I have one critique, it’s that the Big Explanation near the end was one that I don’t think any reader could have put together; there weren’t enough clues, we had to be told because the pieces we needed weren’t given to us. But that’s an extremely minor quibble, because by that point, the Big Explanation isn’t really all that big – important to the characters, yes, but it doesn’t really affect the plot and doesn’t matter so much to the reader. The clues to the bits that matter are all there, although I defy you to figure out what’s coming before it hits – this is a case of, it’s so clear in hindsight!!! but so very un-obvious as it’s playing out. The theory I spent the last two thirds of the book building was utterly wrong – and that delights me. YAY FOR BOOKS NOT BEING PREDICTABLE AND ALSO TRICKING ME LIKE THE FOOL I AM!
Despite how dark some aspects of this are, this was my comfort book, oddly cosy even when the characters were on the run or fighting for their lives. I’ve said this already, but it was easy to read, a blessed relief when the brain-fog attacked – but it’s not insultingly or annoyingly simple. It’s twisty and emotional and I wanted to flail my arms around frantically a great deal more than once. And the magic system! I am in awe of how simple and brilliant is the magic system Törzs has come up with, a clever, so-unique twist on the idea of magic books! It all fits together so well; it’s easy to grasp but still wondrous, still enough to give you goosebumps or make you shiver or have you laughing with awe-wonder-joy. It almost seemed to marry the best parts of hard magic systems with the best parts of soft ones, and I’m so excited to see what my favourite readers think of it when this book is released next week.
Ink Blood Sister Scribe is a fascinating bundle of contradictions that cohere into a real delight of a book. It’s light, but rich and complex; it’s dark, but bewilderingly cosy. It’s easy to read without ever feeling dumbed-down; deliciously more-ish without being rushed. It’s about magic and sisterhood, and yet another 1%-er greedily hoarding resources and happy to murder to acquire more. It’s about making friends with a cat, and ruinous obsessions. It’s about wonder, and terrible parenting, and a Pomeranian named Sir Kiwi.
And a lot of magic books.
Ink Blood Sister Scribe is going on my best-of-the-year list, and when you read it, you will definitely see why!