Urban Fantasy

Ink & Sigil – Kevin Hearne

4 Stars

Kevin Hearne is back in the universe of his much beloved Iron Druid with a new series Ink & Sigil. Readers unfamiliar with this universe will feel welcome, as the book doesn’t lean on prior knowledge, but fans of Atticus O’Sullivan will still find plenty of little nods to the previous series to feel connected and treading familiar ground.

The cover of Ink and Sigil by Kevin Hearne. A stylized image of chalk on a blackboard with celtic symbols and different pen nibs and ink spots.
Image from The Storygraph

Al MacBharrais is both blessed and cursed. He is blessed with an extraordinary white moustache, an appreciation for craft cocktails – and a most unique magical talent. He can cast spells with magically enchanted ink and he uses his gifts to protect our world from rogue minions of various pantheons, especially the Fae.

But he is also cursed. Anyone who hears his voice will begin to feel an inexplicable hatred for Al, so he can only communicate through the written word or speech apps. And his apprentices keep dying in peculiar freak accidents. As his personal life crumbles around him, he devotes his life to his work, all the while trying to crack the secret of his curse.

But when his latest apprentice, Gordie, turns up dead in his Glasgow flat, Al discovers evidence that Gordie was living a secret life of crime. Now Al is forced to play detective – while avoiding actual detectives who are wondering why death seems to always follow Al. Investigating his apprentice’s death will take him through Scotland’s magical underworld, and he’ll need the help of a mischievous hobgoblin if he’s to survive.

I really enjoyed Ink & Sigil. Al is a thoughtful old man who clearly tries to take care of those around him to the best of his abilities and tries to minimize harm. Nadia is an interesting, nuanced and strong (literally) character with a lot more depth than Hearne’s earlier women characters. The hobgoblin is amusing and provides needed humor and levity when the book sometimes goes dark. The characters are all a little unusual, making for a book that stands out from other Urban Fantasy novels I’ve read.

An image of an aurora 88 black mamba fountain pen
Aurora 88 fountain pen – image from Appelboom

I will say flat out that Kevin Hearne has sprinkled in all of my favorite things, so I am immediately biased to like this book. Ink & Sigil somehow surprised me by featuring….handmade inks and fountain pens. Why this is surprising with a title like that is beyond me. And yet it was. (I am notorious for not reading blurbs of books before I read the book – it’s right there in the blurb – enchanted ink!) Anybody who knows me IRL knows I love fountain pens and inks. I’ve got a tidy little collection of fountain pens (mostly TWSBI) and a slightly less tidy collection of inks. So it’s no wonder that Al and his story full of magical inks and beautiful pens instantly charmed me. I’ve added photos of three of the five pens called out in the story to this post.

Not only that, but Hearne then moved on to include gin and whisky quite prominently and with much fine detail in the story. Again, anyone who knows me IRL knows that gin and whisk(e)y are my go-to spirits of choice. There’s nothing finer on a hot day than a Gin and Tonic. Nothing better on a chilly evening than a dram of something brown and neat or a Manhattan or Old Fashioned.

An image of an emerald green Visconti fountain pen.
Emerald green Visconti – image from Goulet Pens

Ink & Sigil is a book that pays attention to the details. Hearne takes care to tell us the color of Nadia’s nail polish, the brands and flavor profiles of the drinks consumed and the rich hues and ingredients in the inks included in the story. And it doesn’t get bogged down in the details. The story of Al, Buck and Nadia moves at a fairly brisk pace for a senior citizen and is full of wit, charm and mysteries to unravel. There were moments I literally laughed out loud, and others where I was very tense, wondering how the team was going to accomplish their goals.

Throughout the story, we discover some of what happened in the Iron Druid Chronicles and afterward through the lens of someone slightly more in the know than the average person, but without a front row seat. These callbacks help fans of that series keep their footing and timelines clear, but add depth and richness to the universe without being confusing for new readers, unfamiliar with the adventures of Atticus and Oberon.

An image of Caran d'ache fountain pen with a rhodim skull and leather barrel by Peter Marino
Caran d’ache fountain pen with a rhodim skull and leather barrel by Peter Marino – image from Williampenn.net

It is hard to review a book set in the universe of the Iron Druid Chronicles without comparing it to the Iron Druid Chronicles, so I’m not going to try. Just from book one, I like Ink & Sigil more than I liked the Iron Druid books. Al and Nadia and the hobgoblin are more interesting, nuanced characters than Atticus, Granuaile and Oberon. For many readers of the series, Oberon was the best part of the books and frankly he turned me off of the books a lot. He was, even for a dog, very one note and crude. Granuaile didn’t get interesting until the final two books when she suddenly got a personality and Atticus always felt very “poor me” even when he was in a situation of his own making. Al, Nadia and the hobgoblin are completely different and I frankly like them much better. Where Oberon was the comic relief in Iron Druid, the hobgoblin takes that place in Ink & Sigil to a much funnier effect, at least to me. Nadia feels like Hearne took all of the (deserved) criticism about Granuaile to heart and wrote a character that looks and sounds like a real person. Hearne is a better writer in Ink & Sigil and it shows.

Overall, I really enjoyed Ink & Sigil and will be excitedly waiting for book 2 to come out. In the meantime, book 1 hits shelves August 25, 2020. If you pick it up, come back and tell me what you thought in the comments below.

I received an eARC from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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