Before I start this review, can we just stop for a moment to appreciate how beautiful the cover of this book is? One of the things I enjoy most at work is unpacking new releases, and when I got my hands on this one, I knew I was going to buy it before I even knew what it was about. I am unashamed to admit that I definitely judge books by their covers and am often swayed into buying a book because of its design – although I usually read the description first. With Ink, I didn’t even bother to do that. As it turns out, I didn’t need to – it was right up my street.
In a rather saturated dystopia/fantasy YA market, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be original, and yet Alice Broadway has pulled it off wonderfully. In a society that is a strange yet intriguing blend of modern and archaic, governed by myths and legends passed down from generation to generation, the people of Saintstone are tattooed, or ‘marked’, with their every deed, achievement and sin. When they die, their skin is removed and bound, the story of their life literally transformed into an open book, to be read and judged. If deemed worthy, your book is treasured by your descendants, honoured, remembered. Otherwise, it is consigned to the flames and to mention your name becomes heresy. This is the world Leora knows. The world she trusts. It is simple. To be marked is to have a story. To have a story is to have a soul. But what if your skin tells a story you don’t want to be told?
It may simply be personal preference, but when I read fantasy I prefer to be thrown in at the deep end, launched into a world that the author assumes you understand already, and if you don’t, it’s your job to simply work it out. I spent the first quarter of V. E. Schwab’s This Savage Song, for example, scrambling to keep up and endeavouring to work out the world I found myself in. I have to say that Ink leaned a touch too much towards the overly explanatory side for me. Some of the sections describing how Leora’s world worked and explaining the concepts of marking, skin books and the traditions so revered by the community were quite lengthy and at times repetitive. Having said that, and although the writing was very simple in style, this in no way prevented it from being evocative and compelling, and the various interweaving strands of the plot soon took over and had me turning the pages.
I really enjoyed the way that the seemingly idyllic society, in which Leora has absolute trust, is slowly revealed to be something more sinister and insidious. Is it reassuring to have one’s deeds clearly visible for all to see – or the ultimate method of control? The cracks really begin to show when Leora finds out that her beloved Dad, who has just died, was a “forgotten”, marked with a tattoo indicating a crime so heinous that it would have condemned him immediately to the flames – if it had not disappeared from his skin book. As she slowly begins to uncover the truth, her unquestioning conviction in the infallibility of the system slowly begins to crumble. This book asks so many questions of the reader: What does it mean to have faith? How do we remember those we have lost? Are people more than the sum of their deeds? And who has the right to judge – our loved ones or the state? Broadway’s depiction of the persecution of a minority community called the “Blanks”, who have eschewed the system of official marking and who have been banished from Saintstone as a result, is also highly thought-provoking, drawing many parallels with real-life history.
This is imaginative, captivating writing; Leora’s passage from innocence to realisation makes for a gripping plot. Broadway strips away the layers of black and white to reveal a world that is colourful in its complexity and imperfection. The fiery copper of the cover design and its contrast with the black and white girl lends itself perfectly to the book’s message: nobody is “blank”, and nobody is perfect. As for me, I’m holding out for the sequel.
Star Rating: 4/5