Darn those young adult fantasy writers! Why do they get to have all the fun? New York Times bestseller rankings, movie deals...where does it all end? Now here's Londoner Sam Enthoven, a first-time novelist who evidently not only rates a cover painting by John Jude Palencar, the best artist in the business, but who also gets a dust jacket for his debut novel that folds out into a full-sized poster of said painting. It may be just me, but if it were a choice between that and a movie deal, I'd have to stop and think. As pure shameless eye-candy marketing goes, it's a hard one to beat. Chances are that even if I thought The Black Tattoo was rubbish, I'd order you to buy it anyway just for the wall art.
Good news! The Black Tattoo isn't rubbish. Though it might not have the adult-crossover appeal of some other popular young adult fantasies, this relentlessly action-packed story (the first fight scene kicks in on page two) will undoubtedly hit its adolescent target audience right where they live.
Enthoven has openly admitted he wanted to write the kind of book that would appeal to the sorts of teens — the majority of them, really — who get the bulk of their entertainment from movies and video games. To that end, there's scarcely a chapter that goes by without someone kicking someone (or something) else's ass. But there are also a worthy trio of protagonists and some good moments addressing such venerable themes as friendship and trust, selfishness versus duty, personal responsibility, the value of family. Enthoven even toys a little with cosmology and ontology, giving religion and the very nature of God a much needed nose-tweak. (Fundamentalist parents who feel threatened by Harry Potter will likely go into cardiac arrest if they knew what was in this book.)
But mainly, this is about good and evil entering the arena for the mother of all smackdowns. Any writer who's watched too many Hong Kong movies can fill a book with martial arts whupass, but few can make the experience of reading that stuff as fun as booting up the Playstation. If anything in The Black Tattoo works, it's that Enthoven delivers adrenalizing entertainment where so many action writers somehow turn in tedium.
One problem, though: the opening chapters are much too abrupt. Enthoven is a little too eager to get to the wire-fu, so he races through scenes that call for a bit more introspection. One might say that 14-year-olds don't have the attention span for characters getting all angsty inside their heads, but I think that's selling young readers short. Anyway, Charlie Farnsworth has about as much angst as a boy his age needs. His father has walked out on him and his mother; laudably, Enthoven doesn't portray the father as a one-dimensional prick, but a rather pitiful figure who perhaps never should have had a family to begin with. But the reader's sympathies will still be wholly with Charlie when he angrily confronts his father, in a good scene that I wish had just a little more meat to it.
Unfortunately, Charlie's rage makes him a vulnerable target for a demon named Khentimentu the Scourge, or just the Scourge for short. The Scourge invades Charlie's body in the form of a creepily motile black tattoo all over his back. (Again, though, the setup is a little rushed.) It feeds on his anger and emotional vulnerabilities, and seduces the boy by granting him every kid's wish, to possess superpowers and feel like the most important person alive. Charlie is easily seduced into coming with the Scourge to Hell — in this story, not Christianity's fiery pit of punishment, but the actual source of all creation — and teaming up in a plot to overthrow Hell's emperor and "purify" the universe by destroying it utterly. The only people who can possibly save Charlie not only from the Scourge, but from the folly of his own rash decisions, are his best mate Jack Farrell, and Esme Leverton, a girl from a secret scoiety called the Brotherhood of Sleep. The Brotherhood have had the duty — not very faithfully executed — of imprisoning the Scourge, but since one of its members foolishly freed it for rather stupid personal reasons, only Esme and her Jet-Li-to-the-fiftieth-power martial arts skills are left to battle the demon.
Like China Miéville's Un Lun Dun, this is a story in which the sidekick steps to the fore and must save the day. The Black Tattoo is the story of both Charlie's and Jack's personal growth; Charlie has to overcome the impetuosity and fiery temper that allowed him to be so easily led into evil, and Jack learns to step out of Charlie's shadow and conquer his own feelings of inferiority in order to do the kind of crucial decision-making that marks passage into adulthood. As for Esme, well, she's really only there to fill the role of don't-mess-with-me teen hottie (of which I wholeheartedly approve, mind you), though Enthoven doesn't neglect her when it comes to giving her a few of her own dark secrets and vengeful motivations. Still, I think Enthoven mainly wanted Esme to win over girl readers by giving them a formidable fighter heroine whom they could wish to be. (And damn, does she own the book in a stupendous gladiatorial deathmatch against half a dozen foes of all shapes and sizes!) It must be working, as Enthoven's already had one groupie marriage proposal.
What's best about The Black Tattoo, though, is that it recognizes something that a lot of children's/young adult literature often hasn't (with notable exceptions, like S. E. Hinton), but that, for instance, rock music typically has: adolescence is a phase of life in which you're frequently just plain pissed off. Anger is part of the developmental cycle of youth, and adolescence especially is an often painful period in which kids are struggling with the cognitive dissonance of living in this frustrating grey area between childhood and adulthood, where you're too old to be treated like a kid but not old enough to be respected as a grown-up. Enthoven's movie/game/graphic novel approach to his book reminded me of a story that tackled a similar theme, involving an angry youth granted superpowers only to wreak uncontrollable havoc: Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira. Here, the message that there are no shortcuts to achievement and respect, and that if an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is, is delivered with a one-two punch to the solar plexus and a sturdy roundhouse kick to the head. If you're ready to get your game on, The Black Tattoo is all the next-gen action you'll need.