Review: “Ink Black Magic” by Tansy Rayner Roberts

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New from Fablecroft, Ink Black Magic is both an entertaining fantasy romp in the Pratchett mode, and an absolutely fascinating book for anyone who is interested in the art of writing and popular fiction.

As a tale in its own right, Ink Black Magic is a light, quick-moving comedy which riffs off familiar territory and tone. Tansy Rayner Roberts’ world of Mocklore might not be as well known as Pratchett’s Discworld, but it’s a vivid construction in its own right, with enduring characters, distinctive scenery, and plenty of original imagery amongst the satire and the parody.

Ink Black Magic finds Tansy’s recurring heroine — pirate queen and witch Kassa Daggersharp — trying to lead a more or less respectable existence as a professor at the Polyhedrotechnical College in Cluft. She teaches on Magic, and most of her teaching consists of “Magic is Very Bad. Do Not Ever Use It.”

This, of course, is the recurring theme of the Mocklore books: that Magic is not a necessary adjunct to exciting and fantastical adventures, but in fact a massive disaster just waiting to happen. It’s not a bad thesis in itself, and in Tansy’s hands, the idea offers a more than serviceably entertaining path to building stories. The first of the Mocklore books, Splashdance Silver won the inaugural George Turner award back in 1998, when T-R-R was still quite young and new to the game. She followed it up with Liquid Gold, revolving around the same central characters, not too much later. While the books were well received by the readership, the discontinuation of the Turner Award and the loooong wait for Ink Black Magic will tell you a great deal about the state of the publishing industry, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.

Yet it is that very gap which provides the curious reader with a rare, and very interesting opportunity. This latest novel, while still a light, funny, downright frivolous piece of satirical fantasy entertainment, is the work of a much more polished and seasoned writer. Having read all three of the books — and in the interests of full disclosure, having known Tansy for quite some time — I found myself enjoying Ink Black Magic not just for it’s tone, imagery and humour, but for the neat and professional qualities of the writing.

I really ought to leave it as an exercise for the reader to follow up from there, but I’ve never been good at leaving well enough alone. What I will say is this: while Tansy’s work always moved at a good pace and demonstrated sharp wit and entertaining characters, the earlier books leave an impression of an author operating somewhat at the whim of her setting, her characters — and her own personal foibles. It is to Tansy’s credit that she created in Kassa Daggersharp a character who could embody and explore her own enjoyment of a range of things including but not limited to shoes, handbags, and sequins, while still carrying on as a rough-and-tumble Pirate Queen Witch Princess One-Woman Disaster Zone.

To be clear: Tansy did what most of us do, and wrapped her first couple of books around the things that she finds entertaining and enjoyable — and it is a measure of her skill as a writer that she quite capably brought her readers in on the joke and helped us share her love of those same ideas.

Now, these same ideas and images are on display in Ink Black Magic. As happily and energetically as ever, Tansy lets Kassa and her circle of…errr… associates skewer assorted tropes of fantasy, food, fashion and tertiary study. But this time around, her plotting feels tighter and sharper. For all that the first two books worked just fine, thank you, this one feels like it works the way she intended it. And since there have been many admirable stories, novellae, novels, awards, blogs, interviews and post-graduate degrees in the years which separated Liquid Gold and Ink Black Magic, I am tempted to go back and read those early works again just to see what I can learn — because it is clear that Tansy learned a great deal, and put it to excellent use.

I’ve been reading speculative fiction for most of my life. I’ve seen a great many writers go back and revisit their early works in one form or another. Most often, the result is depressing: an older, wiser writer can no longer find the passions and the energy which helped them create their first works, and the new stuff comes across almost as a pastiche of the original. Ink Black Magic is that rare thing: a return to younger days by a mature writer who clearly still loves the characters and the setting that put her on this path in the first place.

And this time round? Well, without giving too much away there are rains of seafood, flying sheep, a City of Darkness, plenty of Heroes of Justice, a great deal of destructive magic… and Kassa Daggersharp is still madly in love with her occasional nemesis, the traitor-hero Aragon Silversword.

The book is fun.. If you like Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams, you should consider picking up the Mocklore Trilogy from the start.

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One comment

  1. […] Flinthart reviews Ink Black Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts, and reckons it “is both an entertaining fantasy […]

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