Kismet Andreas is a man tortured by the ghosts of the dead. They scream, plead, and envelope him, all clamoring for something he cannot give. Kismet assumes he must be crazy and the only way he manages his day-to-day existence is by using heroin to drown out the pain. When a creature, born in shadow, but made flesh by a dark magus’ power, attacks and nearly kills him, Kismet realizes he may not be as crazy as he thought.
Kismet’s savior is a man called Mal, who also happens to be a Horseman. He is one of Four Horsemen actually and the youngest of them, still new to his role as Pestilence and forever feeling out of place. In Kismet, Mal sees someone who understands his loneliness and need for friendship. But before Kismet can begin to untangle his new understanding of the world or his affection for Mal, they must join with the other Horseman to prevent a madman from shattering the fragile shield that separates the mortal world from the shadows.
It is almost hard to know where to being with Ink and Shadows. It has so many layers, all of them captivating and intricate, but they bind together to create a wonderfully original, though often dark, read. Rhys Ford is master of the well-written book and this is another prime example. The prose is smooth and engaging and every paragraph draws you deeper into the action. Occasionally Ink and Shadows trips over its own complexities, but these never prevent the reader from understanding the wider narrative. The themes here aren’t gentle and I believe the author has done a wonderful of job of taking frightening constructs, such as death and war, and making them approachable without stripping them of their darker realities. This said, not all of Ink and Shadows is dark and there is hope and even humor and a strong balance to it all.
The real strength of Ink and Shadows is its characters, human and Horsemen alike. Kismet is a tortured soul of the highest order and while his life is far from easy, he has survived and continues to do so. He is world-weary but kind and this prevents him from becoming a pathetic or whiny figure. He is a practical realist and his confusion is relatable as he begins to navigate his way through his new existence. Mal, on the other hand, seems somewhat bumbling and over-eager, but never cartoonish or childish. He is the odd Horseman out, too young when compared to the much older Death and War, awkward and desperately lonely, which makes him rather adorable. He evolves over the course of the novel and slowly finds his place amongst the other Horsemen. Whatever kind of relationship might be evolving between these two is never fully resolved and the story seems altogether unfinished. But I am choosing to assume this was an intentional decision on the part of the author and that a sequel will be coming.
Mal and Kismet are certainly the intended focus of the book and while they are a wonderful pair, it is really Death and War who steal the show. An on-again, off-again couple for millennia, they are the oldest of the Four and we are given the impression that War came to being almost as soon as Death and as a result they have spent their entire existence together. Death is the leader of the Four and bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, but War supports, bullies, and generally adores him. If Death is practical then War is passion and they are a perfectly matched couple. Though they are in an off-again phase at the start of Ink and Shadows, we are given the impression that War’s determination will bring Death back around eventually. Their devotion to one another and to the work they must do, make them truly remarkable characters and I found them to be a real highlight of the novel.
Ink and Shadows had only one issue in my opinion and that was a tendency towards over long scenes. Full of wonderful descriptions and intriguing world-building, most of the book flowed smoothly from one series of actions to another, but during Kismet’s attack and an additional attack on Mal, things lagged a bit. I felt a few pages could have been trimmed from both of these scenes without losing the overall integrity of the plot or missing any vital character developments. There were a couple of other areas where this happened as well, but overall this is a mild criticism and honestly this was one of those books where I would much rather have too much than too little! The scope and creativity of this novel was amazing and when combined with a cast of beautifully wrought characters that tore at my emotions from page one, Ink and Shadows quickly found a place on my favorites shelf.