Kim Smejkal’s debut, dark YA fantasy, Ink in the Blood, is a steampunk, nightmare carnival ride, where tattoo artists are messengers for the gods, and the tiniest mistake could lead to death by insanity.
The concept of this book is what drew me in, a society which runs off of divine messages delivered by magical tattoos. I have never read a book with this concept, and I loved it. Kim Smejkal has done a fantastic job building a creepy, twisted world full of grey skies, an angry deity, and a fantastical theater troupe.
The story follows Celia Sand and her best friend Anya Burtoni, who serve as Inklings in the religion of Profeta. Inklings craft tattoos that hold divine messages from the gods, which appear on the skin of believers, who then use the tattoo as a guide for the will of the Divine. While being an Inkling is a desire profession, after ten years of servitude, Anya and Celia know the truth. The Profeta religion is a farce, a cruel, deceitful prison used to control the people.
However, after successfully escaping from the temple by joining a vibrant and exotic theater troupe called the Rabble Mob, Celia and Anya realize that the Divine they served is in fact very real and very angry with them. In order to stop the Divine from destroying their newfound family, and the innocent believers, Celia and Anya must put on the greatest performance of their lives-—unmasking the truth about Profeta.
The world building and aesthetic in this book is what truly made it enjoyable for me— the grey city streets, where the cobblestones turned to water ways only accessible via gondola, the steampunk clothing of top hats, suspenders, and petticoats, and a dark, macabre theater troupe, complete with its own plague doctor, who never takes of his mask. I could see all of it, and I felt like I was there.
The Profeta religion was fascinating and well-constructed as well. I enjoyed learning about the temple, and the Inklings, and how The Divine and Diavala came to be. The things Celia and Anya had to suffer in order to serve are horrifying to read.
While all the characters had their own spark and intrigue, I had a hard time connecting with them. Celia and Anya should have been more traumatized than they were with all the things they went through, but their past decisions did not seem to haunt them, besides feeling guilt for leaving certain friends back at the temple. Also, the theater troupe characters were delightful, but there were so many I could not keep them all straight.
But I have to say, the plague doctor was my favorite. His character was deliciously mysterious and sultry. The tension Smejkal built between him and Celia kept me turning the pages. He did not disapoint.
However, at the end of the day, this book tried to do too much in too little of time. Without getting into spoiler territory, Celia and Anya were able to destroy something that was literally thousands of years old. It broke my suspension of disbelief. Also, I am curious as to what the sequel, which will release in 2021, will entail, since this story came to a satisfying conclusion. I worry that Smejkal has ended the conflict prematurely.
Still, if quirky, surreal theater troupes, steampunk worlds, and magic tattoos are your aesthetic, then Ink in the Blood may be able to scratch that itch.