You know it’ a good read when you start thinking about re-reading a book as soon as you finish it for the first time. Ink Blood Sister Scribe is the first book like that for me in a pretty long while. In some ways the premise is familiar but it still works: Esther and Joanna are half sisters from a family who guards a collection of magic books, but they’ve been separated for years for reasons neither of them fully understands; they need to reunite when their father dies, and it turns out the magic world is a lot scarier than anyone ever told them. Joanna can hear magic and Esther is immune to magic, but both are aware there’s some mystery in their pasts, related to their heritage. Parallel to Joanna and Esther is Nicholas and Collins; Nicholas is a Scribe, a person whose blood is key to magic book making and working, and Collins is his body guard. Nicholas has spent most of life under his uncle’s protection, so he knows a lot about how magic works, but it turns out there’s a lot about the world and the history of magic that he doesn’t know, and this gets both himself and Collins in a lot of trouble. Eventually paths intersect, secrets are discovered, and dangers faced.
Joanna and Esther are the main perspectives for much of the story and they have their own distinct personalities, and their relationship is one the one hand that of very close sisters but also tension that feels pretty real, like jealousy over Joanna being more obviously magic than Esther and Esther seemingly running away without saying goodbye. They kind of hesitate to trust each other at first but not really, and it’s pretty clear their mom loves them both. I have to say, Cecily annoyed me, she was my least favorite. She comes off as almost toxic in her trying to manipulate Joanna for the first half of the book, even though you later find out why, but it’s still a vibe she never really shakes.
Nicholas and Collins are kind of like every pair of main characters in any buddy cop story ever; one’s the brain (but totally socially isolated and awkward but in fairness, Nicholas knows this) and the other apparently only brawn (turns out that Collins has more formal education than you’d guess, and he’s way better with people than Nicholas). When they finally meet Joanna and Esther, their descriptions and perceptions of each other are entertaining, and there might be a little romantic tension, but not necessarily in a bad or distracting way.
The magic system also feels kind of like something I’ve seen before, blood- and book-driven, and runs in families, but why it’s like that is one of the big discoveries towards the end that needs to be faced. The members of the previous magic generation are always asking the younger folks to trust them when there’s almost always some good reasons not to, which on the one hand is pretty obviously a source of tension but it’s also kind of interesting to see who might actually be or not be the right person to trust.
I’ve seen several descriptions of this as dark academia and while it has a similar vibe, I don’t think that’s a good label fit-wise. First, books like The Secret History, The Magicians, and Ninth House all take place at schools; this one does not; there’s also a major difference in the type of ending between Ink Blood Sister Scribe and the dark academia titles. Of the three I named (I’ve read all of them), I only really liked one, so that’s probably a point in Ink Blood Sister Scribe’s favor. The only other minor complaint I have is that the story ends with a cliff-hanger fade out that’s probably actually the end of the story. I’d love a sequel but I don’t’ really see that there’s anything set up for one. That kind of quasi conclusive but fade out feels a little like a cheat. Especially since we never quite get to see if Sir Kiwi the dog ever gets used to the stray cat Joanna spends the whole book trying to entice to be an indoor kitty.