Cornelia Funke's massive fantasy story has very little charm and substance after you get passed the first 100 pages or so. I was enthralled by the beginning one-fifth of the story, about a young girl who grows up in a paradise of books. Funke does such a great job of creating a sense of mystery and awe early on that it's a big disappointment how the rest of the story turns out. Once the reader learns what the story is really about, it grows very dull. The colorful characters lose their glimmer, and much of the story is populated by flavorless, witless villains who merely brandish knives and cold gazes. Funke follows the trend of recent YA fantasy that prefers a dark story to a light-hearted one. It took the Harry Potter series several books to finally cave in to its dark urges, but Inkheart switches over in the matter of 100 pages, and from that point on I felt like I was trudging along rather than enjoying myself.
The main character is a young girl named Meggie. She lives with her father, Mo, who fixes up book covers and keeps old books from falling apart. He is a lover of stories, and this trait has been passed down to his daughter. Very little is known about her mother except that she went away mysteriously when Meggie was only very young. Meggie and her father appear to be living a fine little life until the arrival of a mysterious figure named Dustfinger, who calls Meggie's father by the name of Silvertongue. It seems that Mo has been hiding some secrets from her, and Meggie spies on her father to try to learn what they are. These secrets revolve around a book and a special power of Mo's, which is the basis for the novel's fantasy elements.
An evil being named Capricorn has been seeking Mo for a very long time, and now Dustfinger is trying to convince Mo to go and see him. It's not very clear what side Dustfinger is on. He takes a liking to Meggie, and shows her tricks he can do with fire and introduces her to his horned marten, Gwin. However, he also has a sneaky, suspicious look about him. His motives are selfish above all else. Mo decides he and Meggie need to run away and hide, and they set out for her great aunt Elinor's house. Dustfinger joins them, against Mo's better judgment. Elinor is the most enjoyable character, at least at the start. She dislikes children, and this creates for some colorful, humorous dialogue at the start. She also loves books, perhaps even more than Mo. She collects them and has a gigantic collection in her house. Eventually the villains make their entrance, and this is where things begin to go downhill.
One of the problems is that nobody seems to take the danger in the novel very seriously, and as a result it's difficult for the reader to take it seriously either. When Mo is kidnapped forcefully by Capricorn's men, it never occurs to even the elderly Elinor to call the police. Instead, everybody packs up and heads out to find him, convinced a simple discussion will win him back. All of the characters in the novel have a tendency to behave like naive children. It's as though they don't realize there are bad things in the world. They talk when they should probably keep their mouth shut, but in truth the villains hardly do anything villainous at all except make threats, hold knives to throats, and throw people into prisons. The reader is supposed to take the narrator at her word when she says that Capricorn is a very evil dude. Funke forgets that it's more powerful to show than to tell.
The novel is very long and it feels even longer because it is repetitive and predictable. The problem with the story is that it has nowhere to go, and Funke merely prolongs the inevitable by showing us many different perspectives and introducing several new characters. In the process, Meggie takes a backseat to everyone else; she is merely pulled along and doesn't truly make a decision of her own. Nothing about the story is very convincing, and the ending comes together too nicely. The reader doesn't really have any reason to be afraid, nor does the reader have any reason to invest anything emotionally into the story. It's flat, dull, and lifeless. Such a shame, too, because it opened up with such promise.