So this was a long awaited book for me, cause tattoos and magic? Plus a queer friendly world? Sign me up!
However, before we delve in, I have to give you the trigger and content warnings cause holy hand grenade Batman, this book has a lot of them.
Content and Trigger warnings: torture, murder, blackmail, systemic oppression, self mutilation, alcoholism, family abandonment, body possession, children being sold into religious based slavery and supernatural haunting. I sincerely recommend a warm blanket and a good friend on speed dial if any of these things hit your brain in a rough way, cause this book is graphic in its description in places.
Also, for those coming from Romancelandia, I will warn that this book, in my opinion, does not have a HEA or a HFN. Its one of my biggest gripes about the book and part of why my rating is lower.
Now on to the meat of the book.
The setting is super interesting, based in a world with a religion based on a child who had the power to create magical tattoos that helped guide people and make decisions. However, the child is (spoiler alert) murdered in said legend of the beginning of the faith. She eventually returns, but its complicated, as you can find out in the book.
What is left behind is a huge chest of magical ink and small children are ‘called’ into the service of this faith at a very young age by the presence of a tattoo.
Unfortunately, as we look further into the system and meet our main characters, Celia and Anya, we discover that this system is distinctly crooked and exploitative. There is little to no chance to escape and extensive torture of the children and teens for any possible infraction.
I won’t lie, I almost stopped reading at some of these places.
Frankly, it got a bit much for me. At certain points, it almost felt as if it was trying to keep being as shocking as possible and didn’t seem to serve as much of a narrative purpose. I get proving that this temple and the faith are totally horrible, but after a bit it felt overdone.
But we move on as our main characters escape, through a series of cunning maneuvers. They join up with a local circus troupe and find their found family. This piece was some of my favorite parts of the book. Lots of trying to learn how to trust others, be with people and dealing with trauma and the realness of having to keep a secret when you want to share with people you care about. Tons of fascinating characters as well and amazing found family vibes as well as queer finding yourself vibes.
I could have read a whole book about just the circus troupe.
However, their safe place becomes compromised and our two main characters become embroiled in a conflict that takes over the rest of the book and segways into the second. I won’t spoil this portion for you, as its a fairly significant part of the book.
Though this book has such incredible potential, I found myself disappointed. The gratuitous nature of the pain inflicted on the main characters and side characters really put me off at times. Maybe its because of 2020 or just life in general, but I’m so tired of seeing characters tortured to prove…something? How bad a place is? I don’t know.
Also, the queer and gender affirming stuff I had been sold on the cover? Sadly seemed somewhat perfunctory and only seemed to exist in the beginning part of the book. The friendship between Celia and Anya periodically seems like it might verge into a love story but never manages to make it there. The love story that does play out has major enemies to lovers vibes and is pretty interesting, but I wish we could have had less sidelining of Anya.
Gender wise, there are aura like creations called tenors that are part of how people read each other’s gender. However, most characters appear to be along the cisgender spectrum and minus one character, no one is shown as having a nonbinary or mixed tenor presentations.
Lastly, the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that I found myself upset that what felt like the potential for a HEA or HFN is pulled out from under the reader’s feet at the last possible second to make room for a sequel. I felt cheated. All that pain, all that struggle and such a huge, intense final fight against the main villain with loss and intense feeling only for things to be unresolved at the very last second.
For that reason, though I love parts of this book, I’ve given it 3.5 stars. Such potential but it didn’t deliver how I hoped.
Your mileage might vary, especially if you like intense angst. And as always, I received a free copy of this book in exchange for writing an honest review.