INK BLOOD SISTER SCRIBE by Emma Törzs (BOOK REVIEW)
Somebody here had a book.
Somebody here was doing magic.”
Emma Törzs seamlessly meshes together fantasy, thriller and dark academia to bring us a spectacularly spellbinding debut. Buzzing with atmospheric prose, charismatic characters and a cryptic plot, Ink Blood Sister Scribe sumptuously bleeds magic from every page.
We follow Joanna and Esther, two estranged half-sisters who must protect their family’s collection of magical books as their ancestors for generations have done. However, where our story begins Joanna and Esther have been separated for several years with hardly any contact with one another. Joanna lives in their family home in Vermont and is now the sole protector of their magical books, each night she must reset the wards which stop outsiders from discovering where they are, thus meaning Joanna can never leave home for long. Whereas Esther has spent years traveling the world, never staying in one place beyond a year as her father had warned her against the night before she ran away. She now resides in Antarctica on a research station and when she falls in love with a girl named Pearl, she decides to stay beyond her limit. Yet when she discovers blood on all the mirrors in the station she knows the people who have been hunting her family are now coming for her. Then there’s Nicholas, who lives in London, confined within his family’s mansion which holds another secret magical Library. Nicholas is constantly under the protective eye of his uncle Richard, for Nicholas is the last Scribe, only his blood holds the power to write magic. These three characters are caught in a dark tale of magic, lies and secrets and when they discover the truth, it changes everything they thought they once knew.
The first half of this novel paints a wonderfully vivid picture of our three key characters by showing us their present lives and tenderly giving us glimpses into their backstories. Joanna and Esther both recall memories of their childhood when the pair had been so close, when their family had been whole, when magic and wonderment had filled their home. A spell to create blooming flowers and vines in their bedroom, another to make them swing high into the air, both girls had grown up with books which had the power to bring them so much joy. Before it all fell apart. Before magic divided them. Nicholas similarly has paid the cost of magic, though creating spells has its honour and sense of purpose, using blood to create magical spells takes a significant toll on one’s health, meaning the more Nicholas creates the more he deteriorates. I loved exploring these various sides of magic, the beauty and the loss.
“In the house, surrounded by the remnants of her father’s life, books buzzing beneath her feet, she sometimes felt so alone she worried she might vanish like the ink in an overused book. But here, with wildlife all around her and magic sweet in the air like good cider, she felt her lines and colors returning, her edges darkening, her core filled in.
She cupped her hands around the coyote’s beautiful face and stared into those beautiful eyes, which stared right back, the pale green of the last changing leaf. How many other people could say thev’d done such a thing? How many people had wielded this kind of power?”
This is a tale that’s so multi-layered, so richly woven together that the narrative entertainingly meanders through puzzle solving, uncovering long hidden family secrets and self discovery. Throughout Törzs deliciously blends together contemporary with classic fairytale staples such as various enchantments, magic mirrors, forest animals, a quest, absent parents and even a stepmother. Like any dark fairytale, it is also drenched in blood. There is a fascinating twist on witches and mages as instead of spells just being read aloud and cast, blood is the key to activating the magic or for creating it. There are those who can feel and even hear magic but cannot create it, and there are those who can create it but never feel or hear it. Then there are some spells that are ongoing, that are a work in progress, that hold the power to drain the user’s blood dry.
I was also impressed by the clever way Törzs writes each different POV in a different tone and style befitting to the character we are with. Joanna is written in an almost fairytale-esque way, Esther holds a contemporary style with breezy dialogue and Nicholas has a scholarly tone. The contrast between Nicholas’s British posh manner and his more surly Boston bodyguard, Collins, was rather amusing whenever the pair bantered with one another! Joanna and Nicholas were of course my favourites, their love for books and their introverted nature echoed mine in many ways. You also cannot help but love Sir Kiwi, a very good and loyal, if a touch pampered doggie.
Though I can’t mention the identity of the main villain in Ink Blood Sister Scribe, I must mention how fantastically they too are written. Their manipulation is subtle, sugar coated with love and false affection, they hold the power of wealth, privilege and dominance over others, they orchestrate plans on a level to get exactly what they want no matter how cruel, how deceitful. They strive on other’s dependence upon them, they are a true narcissist. I did suspect them from the moment we met their character but this didn’t dampen my enjoyment in any way, I still had a lot of pleasure watching them get discovered and eventually get their comeuppance.
“Nicholas had loved myths and fairy tales, but unlike most children he’d never seen himself in the plucky heroes and heroines who spat jewels from blessed mouths or spun wheat into gold or stumbled across magic beans, magic lamps, magic geese. His place was outside the stories, where someone, he imagined, was writing all the spells that made the magic possible.”
A significant theme within the book is that of isolation. Through these characters Törzs reflects upon various ways one can experience loneliness. Nicholas is trapped within his warded mansion, he’s surrounded by employed staff, but feels he has never made deep connections with any of them, not even his former tutor Maram, Collins nor his uncle, Richard. Similarly, Joanna is isolated in her warded cottage in Vermont but she is completely alone with only the occasional contact with her mother, she desperately seeks companionship with animals such as the elusive cat who scratches at her door. Whereas Esther is free to roam the world as she pleases, but never being able to stay in one place for long brings its loneliness too as she eventually has to leave the ones she gets attached to behind. Protecting these books has caused these characters to exist but not truly live, and as the book progresses and their lives entwine, as they experience love and companionship they slowly begin to realise that perhaps magic was never meant to be theirs alone. Maybe some spells were meant to be broken.
Ink Blood Sister Scribe transported me into a world where magic is real and books truly do hold power, and it was a world I cherished escaping into. From the author’s note in the book, this is exactly what Törzs had been looking to achieve, to make her readers once again believe.
ARC provided by Rachel at Century Books and Eliza at William Morrow. Thank you both for the copies! All quotes used are taken from an early ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
Ink Blood Sister Scribe is out 6th July but you can pre-order HERE