Published by Razorbill
During the 2006 edition of Camp Necon (read about it here), I was handed this book by one of the editors at Razorbill and told it was a very cool YA novel that I would probably dig. The cover certainly impressed me, but I really wish they hadn’t mentioned it was YA. No matter what, I always go into a YA (sorry, Young Adult) novel with higher expectations when it’s trying to exist in our genre, and usually I’m just more judgmental about a YA horror yarn. Thankfully, all my worrying was for naught; The Black Tattoo is a damn fine that will appeal to bookworms of all ages.
Our two main characters, Jack and Charlie, have been best friends their entire lives. Now in their early teens, the complications of growing up and learning more and more of what the world can do to them is becoming difficult to deal with, as it is with all teenagers. For Charlie, though, things have gotten especially bad as his father just told him and his mom that he was leaving. He’d been seeing someone on the side for a long, long time and finally decided that he had to do whatever it took to make himself happy, and staying with his family was just not doing it.
Charlie has a lot of rage, then, and is ripe for the picking when a demon, trapped on Earth for thousands of years, is looking for a new host that will allow it to regain entrance into Hell. Its current host, a member of a group who have been keeping watch over the demon for as long as it’s been on Earth called The Brotherhood, sees the potential in Charlie and brings him and Jack to their headquarters under the pretense of choosing a new leader for the group. It’s all a bit fast and surprising for both boys, what with learning that both demons and Hell actually exist, but Charlie is so discontent with life that he’s willing to go along with anything.
Up until this point Enthoven’s tale has gone by at a good pace, with characters being introduced and set into the background for use later, but Charlie and Jack are at the center of things. Once Charlie is in the grasp of the demon, called Khentimentu the Scourge or simply The Scourge, the book takes a radically different turn as we are thrust out of the quiet streets of suburban London and into Hell itself.
Don’t worry, this isn’t like Ed Lee’s Hell from the Infernal series, though it does have similar properties. It’s a structure, with residents and societies and even a ruling class, though it’s a bit barbaric thanks to the fact that the current ruler of Hell gets bored very easily. Jack and Charlie show up in Hell (through a rift in space and time that exists only in a West End pub; one of many Neil Gaiman/Doug Adams-esque touches that make the book so enjoyable), with Charlie going wherever his demon tells him and Jack being forced to fight in gladiator tournaments and eat the vomit of a bat-like creature. Both of these sequences are some of the best of the book, as the mood in them is decidedly lighter than in the rest of the story, which deals with death and pain in equal measure. Enthoven has skillfully interwoven both plots together, the death and destruction that surrounds Charlie and the bizarre situations Jack finds himself in, without either one seeming out of place. Jack is not the comedy relief of the book; he’s more like the regular guy (you or me, presumably) thrust into the most dangerous of places because of his unquestioning loyalty for his friend.
The ultimate goal of The Scourge is to awaken The Dragon, a massive beast on which Hell is only a small mole or pimple, which will bring about the end of all things and return existence to The Void. Why The Scourge wants this to happen is a bit complicated, but needless to say the stakes are quite high for Charlie, Jack, and Esme, the highly-trained fighter who follows the boys to Hell in order to rescue them and finally defeat The Scourge, for which she’s been training her whole life. She has the worst time of it with the many revelations shoved upon her throughout the book and makes for the most tragic of characters.
All the characters in the book are strong and fully realized, but the best thing about The Black Tattoo is its ideas. The concept of Hell has been covered many times in many kinds of stories, but never has it come across quite the same as it does here. It’s not an evil place; in fact the concept of bad people going there when they die is laughed at a few times by its residents; it’s just a place like any other, with its own rules and structures in place. Hell, even God exists in Hell, deciding to go there when he got bored of watching the humans he created, which he really only did because there wasn’t much else to do. The way the characters deal with it all is believable, which is always the most important aspect of creating a whole new world; if your characters don’t believe it, why will you? Luckily it’s not a question you’ll have to ask when you read The Black Tattoo.
Razorbill will release The Black Tattoo this October, so if you’re in the mood for a fun adventure with lots of cool monsters, tons of fighting, a trip to Hell, and the saving of the universe thanks to a lowly human, use the link below to make sure you don’t miss it!
4 out of 5
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