Book Review: The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven

If I had a younger brother I would force this into his slightly sticky hands (I’m thinking 5’2, freckles, scabby knees). The premise is simple (and it must be admitted not particularly origin). However the direction that Enthoven goes literally to Hell and back, and the sheer enjoyment he obviously takes in telling his story lift this book beyond the cliche demon possession + martial arts/Matrix stylings. In the acknowledgments Enthoven quotes Lee Child who said something along the lines of ‘write the book you would want to read.’ And he has certainly done that here from gladiatorial contests in hell, vomiting bat demons who are good, and Great White Shark Lord of Hell.

So taken from the back cover copy:

Jack doesn’t know what he’s got himself into. One minute he and his best friend Charlie were up in Chinatown having crispy duck with Charlie’s dad (and Jack was having to listen to Charlie shouting at his dad for leaving his mum) – then next minute they were in a mysterious room above a theatre, with some of the strangest characters they’d ever encountered. And they were about to take The Test…and something very very weird was about to begin. The Test transforms Charlie – leaving him with the distinctive markings of the Black Tattoo – and with a temper that seems out of control. The boys’ meeting with Esme, a young girl with the most impressive martial arts skills this side of Bruce Lee, her huge and hairy father Raymond, and the mysterious Nick seem to have swept Charlie and Jack into a world they had no idea existed. And it’s only going to get stranger…This epic tale of good and evil, demons and hell, vomiting bats and huge battles marks the debut of an incredible new talent for children’s books.

For the first hundred or so pages, although the book was very well written, I knew exactly where the story and the characters were going. Magical destiny, demon possession, tragics death spurring a quest for revenge, invasive controlling tattoos, EVIL demon who wants to end all of existence. Apart from a few nice touches (tobacco being able to store magic, the scene in which Charlie makes the butterflies come alive in powerly puffs. This is perfect for demonstrating Charlie’s arrogance and how desperate he is to please. One of these great scenes where you can see where each of the characters are coming from.) I was a little bored. And then the characters go through a portal to hell, and the story really kicks in.

In creating hell, and its associated demons is where Enthoven’s skills really come to play. I must admit when the characters went through the Fracture (a gateway to hell) my heart sank. But he more than pulls it off from the narcissistic ruler of hell and his officious administrator, to the gladiatorial contests, the God(frey) bumbling and distracted, and the fractious demons not good at doing what their told. Imaginative, gross, inventive, and very clever he squeezes every drop of humour out of his setting. I loved every minute of it. Of course when the action returns to earth some of the frenetic pace lessens but in the home stretch the characters return to Hell and the pace picks up.

The characters are well drawn. Even Esme who at first seems little more than cliche girl with super powers love interests steps outside of what you expect of her. I love the scene in which she says (paraphrasing here) that yes Charlie was an idiot, but the crucial question was whether he deserved to die for being an idiot. One of the nicer and underated things about this book was the way that Charlie and Jack communicate. Despite some of the cool boys own plot points they never stop talking like the fourteen year old boys that they are. You can see why Jack would follow Charlie into hell. And also there’s a very nice scene where he rips him a new one for his behavior. Charlie’s pain is very real and you see why he would do anything to keep his demon powers, to live in a place where people love him unconditionally and never leave. Jack keeps the book from straying into overblown heroics. I love his ‘typicals’ and cynicism that things can always get worse.

I really recommend this book, and I can’t wait to see what Enthoven does next 🙂

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