Ink and Ashes
Valynne E. Maetani
(Note: For an explanation of my Goodreads policy, please see here.)
This excellent YA book sits carefully nestled between several genres. The packaging lists it as a thriller, and that’s not a bad way to present it. The opening chapters focus more on mystery, by my definition, than thriller. (They are more about the characters discovering secrets than they are about people being in danger.) However, as the story escalates, it does move into thriller territory.
However—and few books manage to pull this off as well as Ink and Ashes—it’s also a slice of life drama, mixing family dynamics, friendships, and romance. While many books use these themes as seasoning, I believe that Valynne successfully creates a straight-up hybrid. I was impressed by how well she balanced the growing tension with a girl struggling through day-to-day challenges. Often when someone tries this, one of the two (either the daily life or the mystery) ends up feeling perfunctory. Not so here, and I thoroughly enjoyed the blend.
I can sincerely say this was one of the best books I’ve read this year, and might even be in the top spot. An artful blend of Japanese culture, solid mystery, interesting characters, and an excellent use of viewpoint. I particularly enjoyed how the writer turned a major trope—the single girl in a cast of mostly guys—on its head by making it a feature of the story.
I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes Young Adult fiction.
The first thing I’d highlight for you to examine is how Valynne juggles the genres, and expectations for them, as mentioned above. Pay attention to the solid mystery hook, followed by balancing family life, then the escalation of discovery into true danger. Valynne is very good with promises; watch how she eases the reader through the transitions between family/school life and the action scenes.
I’d say the book’s second strong feature is its use of viewpoint. Many first-person narratives rely on snark from the protagonist to give them personality and make their narrative more engaging, but Valynne goes a different direction, making the character powerfully inquisitive, and reinforcing this with the careful use of questions, curiosity, and impulsiveness from the main character. Valynne is excellent in her use of emotion, and the scenes of tension in particular popped for me—I truly felt that I was in the head of someone who was on the brink of panic, trying to keep herself together. This was done through deft manipulation of the first-person (first-person immediate, as I often call it) narrative.
Also pay attention to the pacing, which is very interesting in this novel. It occasionally uses thriller style (short chapters, end on a moment of tension or cliffhanger that you resolve quickly in the next chapter) but often mixes more of a mystery style (end with a tease about a cool secret or clue to pull the reader along) and more of a traditional style (full arc within a chapter, ending on a short bit of falling action to give closure to issues raised early in the chapter). These help with the transition between action and drama, and vary the storytelling style to allow payoffs and different types of subplots to play out.
The Short Version
An excellent, fast-paced YA mystery/thriller with an engaging character narrative and a nice mix of action, romance, and family drama.
I noticed no content in this book requiring specific warning.
I’m very good friends with the author’s editor, Stacy Whitman at Tu Books.