The Ink Black Heart of the Half-Blood Prince
SPOILERS FOR THE INK BLACK HEART AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
The Ink Black Heart is a remarkably effective bit of writing on Jo’s part, a thrilling mystery (or mysterious thriller!) and an unflinching examination of modern society’s many sins. Its Potter counterpart, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is my favorite book of Jo’s by a long shot – I believe it was when Jo was most in her stride writing the Potter books. To my immense relief, The Ink Black Heart gives off the same feeling: Jo has mastered the series she is writing, and we can just sit back and watch as she weaves her spell.
The Ink Black Heart is, by page count, the longest Rowling book yet – the US edition clocks in at a staggering 1,024 pages, which really is veering into whatever the literary equivalent is of “maybe it should be a miniseries rather than a movie!” (There is an asterisk to the length: The book prominently features some formatted online chats and tweets that add far more to the page count than to the word count.) However, the book never feels too long; its length is a treat rather than a chore, inviting the reader to take a long weekend of reading from dawn to dusk.
After what I would argue are somewhat bloated fifth installments in each series, the sixth books are a much more efficient telling of a story. Half-Blood Prince is mind-blowing in the elegance of its text, with nary a word that’s extra or out of place. The Ink Black Heart, despite its intimidating length, reads much the same: I would be hard-pressed to find much to cull. This is in direct opposition to Troubled Blood, where, I wrote, despite my favorable opinion, “There are far too many pages devoted to the mystery of what Shifty’s boss gets up to where the answer is both wholly obvious and irrelevant. A comfortable 100 pages could have been culled from this book with the judicious deletion of these subplots.”
In The Ink Black Heart, Jo has struck a perfect balance. The other cases of the agency merit passing mentions, usually in the context of driving home how short-staffed the agency is. The lack of manpower is essential to the difficulty of solving the case: If the Strike agency could put all of a dozen suspects under 24-hour surveillance, things could have been solved much quicker. But luckily, Jo does not ask the reader to keep track of superfluous subplots here, and almost all the pages are given over to either the plot or developing Strike and Robin as characters.
That said, there is one notable exception to the “it’s all essential!” reading of The Ink Black Heart: the chat logs that the book opens with, the chat logs that, much to readers’ chagrin, the text persists in including. I’ve discussed The Ink Black Heart with a few friends, and no one seems to think of them as a winner, but rather as a frustrating misfire.
As an aside, in conversation, this sentiment usually accompanies observations that no one is even making a cursory attempt at editing Jo’s Strike novels any longer. There are some clumsy word choices and a few glaring mistakes that would have absolutely been caught by any editor doing more than a cursory skim. If the Fantastic Beasts films are an example of why one shouldn’t edit material too heavily, given that the stories are left incoherent, the Strike novels are a vivid example of the other extreme. No writer should be above being edited, not even Jo. And I believe that most editors would have gently told her the chat logs should be excised from the text.
Up until now, Strike has usually been slightly better informed about the mystery than the reader. There is usually a very clunky bit near the end of each book where Strike has the mystery all figured out but conceals it from the reader. But in The Ink Black Heart, there is the reverse: The reader is better informed than Strike and Robin because we are privy to the chat logs from Drek’s Game.
Those chat logs are The Ink Black Heart’s answer to “Spinner’s End,” one of the best chapters of Harry Potter where the villains and villain-adjacent folks gather to talk about things without the distortion of the protagonist’s lens. This provides the reader with information Harry doesn’t have and leaves us guessing as the characters deliberately obfuscate what’s happening with talk of “the plan” and “Draco’s assignment” without any specifics.
On the whole, that was far more effective in Half-Blood Prince than The Ink Black Heart’s chat logs were. Part of the issue is that there just wasn’t enough information in the chats for us to do much with. In “Spinner’s End,” we knew who Bellatrix and Snape were (and knew of Narcissa), so we could focus on what they were saying and doing. In these chats, there is so much unknown that there’s not much to be gleaned… and it’s an awful lot of headache just for the big twist that Paperwhite and Anomie are one and the same.
Maybe it’s my own limitations as a reader, but it took all my mental energy to keep track of the mystery as Strike and Robin are solving it. Adding the additional task of trying to match the characters with their screennames, and keeping track of what Strike and Robin know versus what we are privy to, seemed like asking too much. I really wish Jo would stick with the close limited third-person POV and just take us along for the ride with Strike and Robin.
Much as she did in The Silkworm, Jo uses The Ink Black Heart to savagely depict a corner of the world she is quite familiar with: the publishing industry in the former and the ugly side of social media in the latter. The depictions of abusive tweets in this book are harrowing to read, more so because they are an honest depiction rather than heightened satire. The book provoked both thought and discomfort, as excellent books are wont to do, and… yikes. The Strike series rarely hits close to home for me – I don’t have much personal experience with murdered MPs or poisoned doctors – but reading The Ink Black Heart, I was aware that this type of anomie must lurk uncomfortably close to my cozy little corner of Twitter.
Further to Jo’s credit, this book is not a hatchet job on fandom in general, despite portraying an obviously toxic one. When celebrities write about fandom, at times, their antipathy toward it overwhelms the text – Chris Colfer’s Stranger Than Fanfiction immediately comes to mind. Yet Jo, like myself, has been primarily exposed to the Potter fandom. And despite clear and present issues, I think the Potter fandom is among the healthier ones out there – whether due to its female-dominated nature, its accessibility to casual fans, or the obvious emphasis on empathy in the source material. The Ink Black Heart portrays how a fandom, warts and all, can be incredibly meaningful – even lifesaving! – to its members. And the book is much stronger for having this nuance, showing that not even a fandom as hostile as The Ink Black Heart is all bad.
A popular theory in the Strike fandom is that the Strike books run in parallel to the Potter series. From the minute an opal necklace shows up prominently on page 4 of The Ink Black Heart, I took it as confirmation that the book would be a riff on its Potter counterpart, Half-Blood Prince. This presents itself in ways both big and small, and I will be diving into these in both this review of The Ink Black Heart and a follow-up piece on the villains, on the lookout for what can be gleaned about both books when comparing them to each other.
Among the more effective The Ink Black Heart parallels with Half-Blood Prince is the Strike stand-in for Lavender Brown: Madeline. We receive our signal that it’s her because Madeline is a jeweler – and while Half-Blood Prince is rife with jewelry of the soul-vessel variety, the one immediately coming to mind is Lavender’s Christmas present to Ron. She gifts him a necklace adorned with “My Sweetheart,” which he is distinctly uninterested in. In another moment drawing our attention to the parallel, Strike is attacked by a vicious bird in this book – and while that wasn’t relevant to his romantic entanglements, it certainly calls to mind Ron being on the receiving end of Hermione’s Oppugno.
Both relationships – Strike and Madeline, Ron and Lavender – are not very fulfilling, because of the guy’s obvious detachment and preference for someone else. Both pairings flame out spectacularly. Both relationships clearly emphasize the physical aspects.
‘Well . . . we don’t really talk much,’ said Ron. ‘It’s mainly . . .’
‘Snogging,’ said Harry. (HBP 338)
Just like Ron with Lav-Lav, Strike likes Madeline for the sex and ego boost and finds any demand for further emotional intimacy to be tiresome.
The interesting thing about this parallel is that Strike is very clearly the bad guy here. With Ron, the reader more or less is meant to side with him since we are witnessing the story from Harry’s perspective, and Harry has little patience for Lavender. (Though it appears the fandom is coming around on this subject, since I see much less Lavender-bashing these days!) With Strike, his behavior is fairly inexcusable at this juncture in the story, and we don’t have the rose-tinted glasses of his friend’s perspective to soften the blow. Strike is the villain in his relationship with Madeline, and no amount of Bonus Protagonist Points changes that.
I will also note, there was a curious parallel-that-wasn’t between the two books and the subject of romantic pursuers. Robin ends up going out for drinks with Preston Pierce, who is very interested in her romantically and not shy about pursuing it. When they go out for drinks in Chapter 67, Pez keeps asking again and again why Robin isn’t drinking her alcohol. I have never been so convinced of something while reading Strike as I was that Robin was going to get roofied, à la Romilda Vane’s love potions. I’m flabbergasted that this parallel between Pez and Romilda didn’t pan out… though perhaps the Romilda of the story could be Hugh Jacks rather than Preston Pierce.
On Overarching Plots…
There is a curiosity about The Ink Black Heart, one that will be teased out over the coming weeks and months. The book feels surprisingly episodic in the overarching Strike series. We can’t say for certain what the main plot of the series is yet. However, depending on one’s genre preferences, it’s likely to be either Strike and Robin’s eventual romantic relationship or the solution to the murder mystery of Leda Strike. Most of the other threads – Charlotte’s perpetual presence in Strike’s life, his antipathy toward Rokeby – seem to be in service of those two arcs. Yet after several very consequential books in the series, The Ink Black Heart feels like it did not move the needle very far.
Career of Evil introduces us to Jeff Whittaker, Strike’s presumed suspect for Leda’s killer. Lethal White finally removes the Matthew-shaped obstacle to Strike and Robin’s romance. Troubled Blood, which is probably what skewed my expectations, seems like it’s a feverish sprint through the plot: Rokeby reaches out to Strike, Strike finally excises Charlotte from his life (or so he thinks), and Strike and Robin’s relationship progresses by leaps and bounds. When we leave them at the Ritz, it’s with the assumption that The Ink Black Heart will build on the pair’s undeniable love for each other.
Yet 1,024 pages later, the status remains quo. Strike gets rid of Charlotte (yet again!), seemingly for good… but probably not. Strike’s family remains entirely off-page. Strike is relearning the lesson from Lethal White about women being more than restaurants and brothels (LW 412). (This reader, for one, is growing weary of this lesson needing to be relearned!) And Strike and Robin are still trying to ignore their romantic feelings for each other, irrationally jealous of their counterpart’s dates yet not doing a thing about it. The biggest development is Strike’s wake-up call to take better care of himself, which (while necessary!) doesn’t quite compare to the revelations of the prior books.
I say all this not in criticism, but in curiosity. Jo is a skilled enough writer, and Strike and Robin are likable enough characters, that I have no objection to an episodic detective series. Frankly, I think pop culture could do with slightly more stand-alone stories at the moment – Marvel movies really shouldn’t require as much homework as they do! I am just puzzled that The Ink Black Heart is such an about-face from Troubled Blood.
If considering that The Ink Black Heart should parallel Half-Blood Prince if the theory about the two series is correct, then The Ink Black Heart has done nothing to disprove that, based on the two as stand-alone books. The key distinction, of course, is that Potter was seven books, whereas Strike will be at least ten (per Jo’s latest interview). Many readers expected (or perhaps still expect) that Strike 7 would resolve at least one of the two story arcs and that Strike 6 would set all of that in motion. After all, Half-Blood Prince really reads as Act 1 of the two-act climax to Harry Potter – when the curtain falls on Year 6, Harry is teed up to hunt Horcruxes and take on Dumbledore’s mantle as Voldemort’s primary adversary.
Yet that is not the case for Strike, leaving us more muddled than before about predicting the future of the series – though I’m still reasonably confident about my predictions for Brexit playing out in the coming Strike books. Will Strike 7 be a major turning point for the series? Or will we read several more episodic books that focus wholly on the mysteries before things come to a head in Strike 10?
I look forward to reading your thoughts on Robert Galbraith’s new tome and where the Strike series might be heading in the future!