Ink (2018), by Alice Broadway, is the first book in a YA dystopian trilogy with a unique, if gruesome, premise. Everyone in the city of Saintstone has the events of their lives tattooed on their bodies. When a person dies, their skin is removed and made into a book, which is then judged at a ceremony that recalls the Weighing of the Heart in Egyptian mythology. If the person is determined to have lived a good life, the book (and by implication, the person’s soul) is returned to their family to be remembered forever among the ancestors. If the book is found unworthy, however, it is thrown in the fire and the person is officially “forgotten.” People without tattoos, called “blanks,” are hated and have been forced out of Saintstone.
Leora is a teenage girl whose father has just died. His skin book is created, and Leora and her mother look forward to the day they can bring it home and treasure it. They must wait several months for the ceremony, however, and during that time Leora learns some troubling information about both her father and about Saintstone. Meanwhile, Saintstone has a new mayor, Longsight, who promises to restore the city to its former glory by bringing back harsher punishments for disobedience.
For me, the tattoo premise had a lot of “wait, but why…” aspects to it. For example, the books are clearly labor-intensive; they seem like a lot of work for something that might just get thrown in the fire in a few months. Why don’t they examine the bodies, and then only make books of those found worthy? Another question is why anyone would get a tattoo of a private transgression that no one would ever know about otherwise. There are a couple of references to people having tattoos referencing their extramarital affairs. Why, when the meaning might be revealed after your death and consign you to oblivion? All of this makes more sense if we assume that the ceremony has largely become a formality and that almost no one was ever “forgotten” before Longsight rose to power, but this isn’t made as clear as one might hope.
The overall world-building is vague as well, and I’m not sure if that is intentional (to show that Saintstone’s residents aren’t told much about the outside world) or not. We don’t know whether this is Earth; if so, where on Earth it is; when it is; how much technology exists; and so on.
I also found Leora annoying. She’s written as clumsy, which seems to be a common YA trope to make a character relatable, but fits poorly with her chosen career as a tattoo artist. She isn’t very good at putting together obvious clues, and she refuses to listen to the one person who has useful information for her. She eventually makes a rash, immature, vindictive decision that hurts almost everyone around her, because she is unable to rethink her prejudices even though she’s starting to question other things about her society.
The writing is often repetitive. For example, Leora tells us that the town storyteller, Mel, will not have her own personal story remembered after her death, and then a few pages later tells us the same thing again.
The ending would be profoundly unsatisfying if Ink were a stand-alone novel. Leora does something that makes a dramatic scene in the moment but seems unlikely to effect a change on the larger scale, and then the book leaves us unsure of what happens in the immediate aftermath. We know Leora survives, though, because there are two more books about her. Hopefully Spark and Scar also address a few plot threads that are introduced but not resolved in Ink.
As for me, I probably won’t read further in the SKIN BOOKS series. Other than the tattoos, this doesn’t really stand out from all the other YA dystopias out there, and Leora leaves me cold.