I always think that a map at the start of a novel bodes well. A map of a settlement, Saintstone, which features shops, a school, a museum, and a Flayers building promises much. When this is accompanied by an arrow pointing off map towards ‘Featherstone; Blanks exiled here’, you know you’re heading off into fascinating territory. And so it proves with Alice Broadway’s Ink. Shortlisted for Waterstones’ Children’s Book Prize in the Older Fiction category, Broadway’s story takes us into a world in which life experiences, actions and events are inked onto a person’s skin as a means of documenting their worth for all to see. To be marked is to be honest, open. Those who are ‘blanks’ have been exiled, cast out. The Blanks are to be feared because they cannot be read.
In this world, the skins of the dead are used to create books as a form of memorial, as long as they’re found to be suitably worthy during the ‘weighing’. The importance of ancestors, made physical through their books, is key to this community. Broadway’s teenage protagonist, Leora, is grieving for her father and waiting for his book to be returned to the family home, where it can sit alongside the other books of her ancestors. The books are a highly imaginative device on Broadway’s part and allow her to establish ideas of commemoration, acts of rebellion, and notions of identity. Being marked as ‘forgotten’, which means you’re forcibly tattooed with the image of a crow, is something to be feared deeply. Events concerning public censure and memorial reminded me of Atwood’s Gilead. Broadway’s Saintstone is like that of an other-worldly folk tale (dark ‘fairy’ tales play a significant role in the embedding of the society’s ideologies in its young and inculcating a fear of the ‘other’) and a dystopian near-future of our own world. It’s this blending of the familiar and the unfamiliar which makes the setting of Saintstone so brilliantly convincing and so horrifying.
As the novel progresses, we see how those in power fuel this fear of the Blanks for their own ends. Leora, whose ambition has always been to become an Inker, is a fascinating product of her world and joins the likes of Katniss Everdeen as a compelling teenage protagonist who finds herself caught up in the ideological struggles of the state. Broadway’s world is a thrilling exploration of how our identities are bound up with how we are read by others and how our experiences shape us. Saintstone’s museum bears the inscription ‘Truth Laid Bare’ above its door. As Leora learns, the truth is far more complicated than she had ever imagined.
This is a really fascinating read for both older children/young adults and older readers. Unlike many such novels, the teen characters’ speech sounds convincing and the complex ideological issues are dealt with effectively in a dynamic plot. Ink is a brilliant debut, and I can’t wait to find out what Broadway has in store in her second instalment, Spark.
Read my review of Pam Smy’s Thornhill, also shortlisted for the Waterstones’ Children’s Prize, here