Review:: The Palest Ink by Kay Bratt

A sheltered son from an intellectual family in Shanghai, Benfu spends 1966 anticipating a promising violinist career and an arranged marriage. On the other side of town lives Pony Boy, a member of a lower-class family—but Benfu’s best friend all the same. Their futures look different but guaranteed…until they’re faced with a perilous opportunity to leave a mark on history in The Palest Ink.

At the announcement of China’s Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao’s Red Guard members begin their assault, leaving innocent victims in their wake as they surge across the country. With political turmoil at their door, both Benfu and Pony Boy must face heart-wrenching decisions regarding family, friendship, courage, and loyalty to their country during one of the most chaotic periods in history.

The prequel to the beloved Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters series, The Palest Ink depicts Benfu’s coming-of-age during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution. (via Goodreads)

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of The Palest Ink as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


The title comes from a Chinese proverb that states “The palest ink is better than the strongest memory,” and that is something that drives our main characters Benfu, Ponyboy, and Wren.

I was not entirely thrilled with this book. Goodreads lists the paperback at 388 pages, but it felt a whole lot longer than that to me. I had to force myself to reopen it every time I closed it to go do something else, and it felt really long to me.

I would guess that Benfu is important in the series that follows this book, The Tales of the Scavenger’s Daughters series, because they spent a lot of time setting him up for the future. He was also a pretty good main character for this story. He learned a lot about what was going on in a reasonable pace, with the help of his friends. It didn’t hurt that his family was super rich, so he truly felt the falling of his class.

I thought the characters were well-developed throughout the novel, and that was really a strength throughout the novel. I liked Pony Boy’s voice throughout, and the changes that came as he grew up into his own person.

Historically, I learned a lot about the beginning of Chairman Mao’s, but this book really got lost in the details. Some things flew by, while other parts really needed more explaining for someone with no background information on the time period, as I suspect many American readers will be.

three stars

Because of this, I’m rating The Palest Ink as a 3 out of 5 star rating. I think if it had been cut a little bit further in editing and explained a little more broadly, it could have been really good. It just really didn’t hit home for me. If you enjoy a little more history than plot development, you might enjoy this.

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