Banished from their homeland, two disgraced brothers, a fanatical priest and an escaped slave who venture into the foreboding Kalparcimex, an uncharted jungle teeming with an incredible variety of wondrous and murderous insects. When the legendary ranger Xan refuses to help the adventurers on their quest for redemption, they enter into an ill-advised pact with Ink, a cursed sorceress who stains everything she touches. Caught in the conflict between the two powerful figures, the four banished heroes must confront their darkest desires to escape the Kalparcimex!
Zak Zyz’s second novel Xan & Ink is a tough one for me to review. While I enjoyed the story and the characters, there were elements that greatly bothered me—and no, it wasn’t the armada of creepy-crawlies that inhabited the Kalparcimex. To be able to discuss these things though, I will by necessity spoil some things, so if you do not want to be spoiled this is your warning. Also, I’ll add in a trigger warning for rape as well, both for the book and my review.
Still with me? Okay, let’s go. On its face, Xan & Ink starts off as your standard epic fantasy featuring an adventuring party thrown together by circumstance and off to save the world or in this case, the city—so far, so usual. In fact, Zyz does some fun things with his characters, giving us variants of the standard adventuring party. There are the two brothers, Gregary, a knight, and Sandros, a fire wizard. There is Brakkar, the zealot priest, and Osolin, an escaped slave, assassin and thief. Together they trek into the Wild to find a way to stop the Kalparcimex from spreading across their home city. Zyz quickly established the characters and their relationships, though he does so in a humorous manner and makes it clear how and why they start to build trust between them (or not as may be the case). I especially enjoyed the bond between the brothers, there is an easy acceptance and banter — as well as the inevitable bickering — between the two that was lovely to see.
The Kalparcimex, the seemingly sentient jungle that they seek to defeat is an interesting concept and place. Creepy as all get out, with flesh-eating plants and huge bugs, it gave me hives, but I liked how Zyz set it up and made it not so much evil, the jungle isn’t spreading with malicious intent, but an inevitable, unthinking natural phenomenon. Like creeping ivy, it covers and smothers anything in its way in a bid for its own survival, not with the aim of killing that which it is covering. The same goes for the huge insectoid creatures living in this jungle, they are exhibiting natural behaviour, but magnified it is horrific.
Before the group heads out into the Kalparcimex, they team up with the mysterious sorceress Ink. Ink was troubling, interesting but troubling. It was Ink’s behaviour that gave me the most pause, especially in the latter half of the book. This was caused both by her actions in the book and my reaction to it. Ink uses her sexuality as a weapon and a way to bind people to her and I found myself having to examine my reactions closely, to see why it made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t clear whether the author was just writing out a fantasy or was trying to subvert a trope. The latter seemed possible, since when Ink first displays her sexuality it is in a scene that to me read as a rape. The scene disturbed me and actually made me angry, because in no way is this dynamic acknowledged. The scene starts with the victim bound and Ink initiating sexual interaction without consent. While in the end he becomes willing, I’ve been taught consent can only be given prior, to avoid the mindset that ‘No means Yes’, and so for me this entire situation remained problematic. And the victim doesn’t even express his anger about it or even remarks on the lack of initial consent on his part. I found this highly problematic and only kept reading to see whether the author would fix it. Unfortunately, he doesn’t, and Ink becomes an abusive bully, not just to Xan, but to Osolin as well. While there might be some overtones of BDSM in Ink’s relationships, I’m not familiar with that life style beyond what I’ve seen on things like CSI and in Fifty Shades think pieces, so I can’t judge that, but I’ve always understood that consent is key in any type of relationship and Ink disregards that all over the place.
If anything, Xan & Ink has left me conflicted. The main question at the end of a review is always, would you recommend it and in this case I just genuinely don’t know. Because, for some people their faves are problematic and they don’t care, but for other people there are things in this book that are unacceptable. Would I read more of Zyz’s work in the future? Probably yes, as I enjoyed his writing style and world-building, and most of his characters, but at the same time I found this book very problematic and I’d be wary of such issues in future books. I guess that in the end, this book is one for which your mileage may vary, but while I’d say check out Zyz’s writing, I can’t whole-heartedly (or even half-heartedly) recommend this novel.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.