The Short Version: When you come of age, your skin is tattooed with a magical ink that defines the course of your life – but Caenum isn’t so sure he’s ready for his life to be decided for him. He’s dealing with burgeoning feelings for Dreya and missing his dead mother and absent father. But when the tattooist caravan is attacked the day before he’s meant to be tattooed, he must go on the run from the corrupt magic-fearing government in the Citadel – and he will discover that Ink isn’t the only magic in the world…
The Review: Sometimes, it takes the right audiobook to get you to like audiobooks again. Or, well, at least enjoy them – I’d still, I think, prefer a paper copy to curl up with… but Inked proves that they aren’t all bad. Snappy narration from Nick Podehl (who delivers several well-defined and differentiated voices) and a darn-good narrative conspire to make this a perfect listen when you need a solid fantastical escape.
But okay, so as for the book itself: Eric Smith, formerly of Quirk Books and The Geek’s Guide to Dating, has delivered a pitch-perfect series opener with Inked. At least, I hope it’s a series opener – he does so much work creating a world that instantly feels lived-in that it’d be a shame to let it go after just one story. He’s left enough open-ended that I’m almost sure we’ll see a follow-up (or several…) and I’m already looking forward.
The great concept that comes out of this book is these tattoos/the Ink. Magical tattoos aren’t necessarily anything new (see: The Illustrated Man, The Magician’s Land, and many others) but something about Eric’s take on them feels refreshingly original. Basically, when you come of age, you’re Inked by a traveling caravan of tattooists whose magical Ink designates what you’ll do with your life. If you’re a nerd who stays inside but gets Inked as a farmworker, you’re SOL – but if you love baking and get Inked as a baker, you’re made. It’s unclear how these things are determined, but it quickly does become clear that the Ink is a tool of oppression: the Unmarked are ostracized and you have to do what your Ink says whether you like it or not.
Of course, the Ink also ends up being more than meets the eye – in a lot of ways, in fact – and that’s one of the primary story engines here. I was delighted to learn more about the magic in this world and Eric doles it out with excellent pacing; we’re never bored and yet also never feel like there’s too much coming at us. I was even genuinely surprised by some of the developments surrounding magic (although there were others that completely lacked any surprise at all) – and I’m excited to learn more.
The plot itself is relatively predictable, until some major turns in the final act. Caenum’s burgeoning teenage everything makes it pretty obvious from the start that there’ll be some romantic sparks between him and Dreya – and a different kind of spark between him and Kenzie. But their trio bonds well and organically over the course of the story, steering clear of anything too intense for teen readers but also not pulling any punches. Caenum’s grief for his mother and his interactions with his father are particularly deep for a teen book, but I think that Eric’s belief in those teens will be rewarded: they can handle it and it’s better to write for them than to try and shield them from the world. I know I appreciated it when a teen novel didn’t pull its punches – so I hope the current generations do too.
I won’t go too deeply into the back half of the novel, plot-wise, except to say again that there were some sudden reversals towards the end that had me (metaphorically) turning the pages even faster. I was urging Podehl to read faster, although of course he couldn’t – but the action is that kind of propulsive. The turns come almost too fast for their own good, leaving the reader a little out-of-breath and frustrated at the end of the book… because it was over, not through anything actually bad. It’s the ending, more than anything else, that makes me think it won’t be long before we see book two in the Inked saga – and if Eric brings the same warmth, humor, and intelligence, I think it’ll be just as good as the first.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A really solid series opener that combines some run-of-the-mill plotting with tremendously human characters and a unique twist on magic. The audiobook, narrated by Nick Podehl, is exactly what a fantasy audiobook should be: propulsive, well-voiced, and assured. Of course, the same adjectives go for Smith’s writing and the pairing is just right. There are a lot of teen fantasy books out there these days – but this one has just enough originality to make it stand out from the pack in all the right ways.