Inkworld Trilogy - Inkheart, Inkspell and Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke, 1871 pp RL MIDDLE GRADE

Inkheart, Inkspell and Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke comprise the Inkworld Trilogy, which Funke (pronounced FOONK-eh and also the German word for "spark") completed in October of 2008. Funke is a native German now living in Los Angeles and all three books in the trilogy are translated by Anthea Bell. Funke was a social worker, educator and eventually children's book illustrator before she began writing her own books. Her illustrations appear at every the chapter start and she has also written and illustrated several picture books for children. Funke is hugely popular in Germany and acquired an English publisher when a bilingual child sent a letter to Barry Cunningham at The Chicken House, an imprint of Scholastic, asking why her favorite German author was not available to read in English. As Dwight Garner noted in the New York Times in January of 2005, Funke's Inkworld Trilogy books are always in the top five of the Children's Series bestseller list, despite the fact that books in translation by living writers rarely make it onto this list. This does not surprise me. Since Inkheart was published in 2003 and released in paperback in 2005, I have been constantly re-stocking the shelves with it whenever I work. Despite the length of these books, kids are buying them and, I think actually reading them. Now that the movie of Inkheart is about to open, I am sure sales of the books will surge, and well they should. This trilogy is a landmark in children's literature, what Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy is to the genre of fantasy writing.

As I was doing research for this review, I learned that Brendan Fraser, who plays the main character Mo Folchart in the movie, was Funke's inspiration for the character when she began writing Inkheart. Funke and Fraser have since become good friends. One of the dedications Inkspell is to Fraser "whose voice is the heart of this book." Having listened to all three books on audio, each with a different narrator I can tell you with certainty that his voice really is the heart of the book(s.) Fraser's narration is rich, emotional and diverse in ways that I was surprised and moved by. I have long been a fan of his movies, even the cheesier ones, and still found myself awed by his range and ability with the spoken word. My new favorite narrator, after Jim Dale, is Brendan Fraser. If you have the opportunity to listen to his reading of Inkspell, I highly recommend it. He also reads the audio of Funke's Dragon Rider.

The basic plot elements of this story - I will henceforth refer to all three books in the singular - are so brilliant, like Michael Buckley's series, The Sisters Grimm, I wish I had thought of them myself. Cornelia Funke infuses creates a complete world, like Tolkein and Rowling do, although without a fabricated language or wizarding vocabulary. Instead, Funke peppers her story with Italian sounding names for people and places, as well as exoctic nicknames. Most of the characters in this story go by more than one name. Funke's Inkworld is filled with prolific details and elements that allow her to spin her story out over almost two thousand pages, keeping it compelling and intriguing from start to finish. In addition to that Funke has meticulously added quotes at the start of each chapter (and there are between fifty and one hundred chapters in each book) that are taken from the world of children's and adult literature. The array of authors ranges from Shel Silverstein, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and JK Rowling to Italo Calvino, Khalil Gibran, Margaret Atwood and Wislawa Szymborska, Polish poet who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. As a child and as an adult, my greatest joy in a literary work is a reference that leads me to another great author or work, and these books will do that one hundred times over.

It is not possible to summarize this trilogy and do justice to it. Funke has created over 114 individual characters in these books and a plot like a maze or a tangled skein of yarn. You can't see the end until it is right around the corner. Also, there are so many surprising moments that I don't want to give anything away. So, in brief: The story begins with Mo Folchart and his twelve year old daughter, Meggie. Mo is a bookbinder by trade and there are some delicious descriptions of his workshop, as well as his works. Meggie and Mo travel a lot, for his work, Meggie believes, and for these trips Mo has made her a special box for transporting her favorite books. Painted poppy red and labeled, "Meggie's Treasure Chest," she packs and repacks it often. For Meggie, books are "familiar voices, friends that never quarreled with her, clever, powerful friends - daring and knowledgeable, tried and tested adventurers who had traveled far and wide." This is especially so since Meggie has lived a somewhat solitary life with Mo during which time she has never heard him read out loud. We soon learn that there is a reason for this, a reason that is the driving force of the trilogy, the ultimate power that is wielded over all other characters. Mo has the ability to read characters out of books. He discovers this one night when Meggie, then three, is sitting with her mother, Resa, and listening to Mo read from one of their favorite books, Inkheart (this is the book within the book), written by a man named Fenoglio. In an instant, Resa is gone and four characters from the book appear in her place. These characters haunt Mo for the next nine years as he moves from town to town trying to escape them. They include Dustfinger who, along with his horned pine marten, Gwin, is a traveling player, a fire-eater in the Inkworld (the world inside the novel Inkheart) who wants desperately to return to his wife, Roxanne, and his family in Lombrica, a city within the realm of the Laughing Prince. Another escapee from the book is Capricorn, a malevolent character who is concerned only with power. Capricorn finds a way to survive in our world and seeks out Mo so that he can read him more characters, creatures and treasure from the Inkworld and other books. Capricorn arrives in our world with his thugish, superstitious henchman named Basta (which means "enough" in Italian) who makes a haunting appearance in Inkdeath, and an equally nefarious mother, Mortola, also known as the Magpie. Mortola is a wise woman who knows how to use herbs to poison her son's enemies. She also makes a surprising return in Inkdeath.

Much of Inkheart is spent fleeing and fighting Capricorn, who has made it his mission to destroy all but one copy of Inkheart so that he can control who is read in and out of the story. In an effort to keep Meggie safe, Mo takes her to the home of Resa's great aunt, Elinor, in the mountains of Northern Italy, on the pretense of doing some work for her. Her home turns out to be within driving distance of the deserted town Capricorn has turned into his garrison. Elinor is a book collector and her house is another opportunity for Funke to wax poetic on the subject of books, mentioning many great works with relish. Elinor herself is quite a character, both cranky and capable of caring, who develops nicely over the course of the books without ever losing the shrill edge to her personality. Through the missteps of Mo and Dustfinger, the author of Inkheart, a man named Fenoglio, is located then captured by Capircorn. This leads to a marvelous, if dangerous, discovery by Meggie, which ultimately allows her to rescue the group from danger, not without first sending Fenoglio to live (quite happily, if impotently) in his own book. Inkheart ends with Darius, a man who also has the power to read people in and out of books, although his skill is unreliable. Darius' stutter has detrimental effects those he reads into and out of books and Resa, Meggie's long lost mother, has lost her voice as a result of this. However, at the end of Inkheart Elinor, Mo and Meggie return to live happily in Elionor's lakeside home. Meanwhile, Dustfinger, in possession of the only copy of Inkheart, along with his new apprentice, Farid, who was read out of Tales from the Thousand and One Nights when Capricorn forced Mo to read him a treasure, is still achingly desperate to return to the Inkworld and makes a decision that will affect his world and ours.

Inkspell takes place almost entirely in the Inkworld and grows increasingly darker in tone and content while introducing new and fascinating characters. The Adderhead, ruler of Argenta, which borders Lombrica, has a heart that is even blacker than Capricorn's, if possible. Both Capricorn and Mortola worked for him when they were in the Inkworld. Only a year has passed for Meggie and her family, but much time has passed in the Inkworld and the story has taken on a life of its own, so much that Fenoglio has become dispirited with both his writing abilities and his lack of control over the world he created. Nevertheless, he is the court poet and has a good life living in the village of the Castle of Ombra and writing songs about the outlaw, The Bluejay, whom he has described to look exactly like Mo. Funke explores the idea of the creator and the created in this book in fascinating ways that I can't go into without giving away too much of the plot. With Inkspell, we get to see, so to speak, the marvelous world of Inkheart that was spoken of with such fondness and reverence by so many of the characters in in Inkheart. Also, in Inkspell Resa and Meggie spend much of their first year together discussing (in writing and with paintings from the still mute Resa) the Inkworld, where Resa lived for nine years. The fairies, glass men, moss women, White Women, dwarves and the Wayless Wood are all brought to life in her works and through the writing of Funke. Fenoglio's love of sad endings and the evil ways of men (and women) is also discussed among the characters in the story. By the end of the book, everyone except Elinor and Darius find themselves living in the Inkworld and in grave danger.

Inkdeath proves to be even darker than Inkspell. Bad decisions, or maybe bad writing, by Fenoglio, have brought about a dark era in the region of Lombrica. Their King has died in an attempt to stop the Adderhead's cruel reign and many of the men and boys have also died in the course of this campaign. The Caslte of Ombra is a sad and impoverished place inhabited by women, children and the Adderhead's soldiers from Argenta. And, even worse, a character from our world who has given himself the bold name of Orpheus is in the Inkworld and trying to take over Fenoglio's story, a story he has loved since first reading it a child. Orpheus, like Mo, can read characters, creatures and things in and out of books, however he has more control over his power than Mo, Meggie and Darius combined. Orpheus, who above all else is looking out only for himself, shifts his alliances throughout the story, but is always despicably self-centered in his actions. Another character who steps into the spotlight in this story is Violante, daughter of the Adderhead, wife of Cosimo the fair who was the son of ruler of Lombrica. She is also the mother of Jacopo, a beautiful child with a seemingly black heart.

For those of you with sensitive children and young advanced readers, I would like to say that the violence and suffering are at a peak in this book. There are many deaths and scenes where one character or another is covered in blood and much talk of weaponry and fighting and broken necks. There is a character who bathes in the blood of fairies and there is a monster who sucks the souls out of humans, leaving them empty like the exoskeleton of a bug. There are several characters who die and come back to life. These are an important, well written parts of the story and comparable to the violence and suffering that goes on in Tolkein's Middle Earth. Funke's writing is rich and evocative of traditional fairy tales, which themselves can be very violent, descriptive and filled, at times, with sadness and despair. She weaves an astonishing, gripping story that carries the important message of traditional fairy tales. As the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, a writes, "This is the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human experience - but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets the unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious."

Although less philosophical, academic and theosophical, Funke's Inkworld Trilogy reminds me of another trilogy, Philip Pullman's exceptional His Dark Materials Trilogy consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. These books have children as the main characters and conjure up a spectacular, magical world parallel to ours, but they also bring up ideas and issues that are worth having a discussion about. Like the Inkworld Trilogy, His Dark Materials is a trilogy of books that are compelling, thought-provoking reads for adults and children alike.

Readers who enjoyed the Inkworld Trilogy might also enjoy The Great Good Thing, which is about characters inside a story who manage to get out and The Sisters Grimm Series by Michael Buckley. And, finally, Sharon Creech's The Castle Corona is a wonderful fairy tale that is magical despite the fact that there is no magic in the story itself. All of these recommendations are much lighter on the despair, struggles and complexities that arise in the Inkworld and Dark Materials trilogies and are also shorter, easier reads. Also, for readers who still might be too young or sensitive to take on the Inkworld Trilogy but are looking for a good series with castles, wizards, witches, ghosts and dragons, Angie Sage has created a wonderfully magical fairy tale like world that, while it will never be free of darkness, is much more gentle in its exploration of these themes. The Septimus Heap Series, book 1 of which is titled, Magyk is rich with details and equally strong boy and girl characters as well as beautiful illustrations by Mark Zug and, my favorite of favorites, a map!

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