01 November, 2012

Tattoos and Magic for Early Reviewers

Sabrina Vourvoulias

A fascinating book based on a truly remarkable concept that posits a US government which requires all Hispanics to be tattooed, an action which allows and leads to further legal restrictions ~ and worse ~ on that population. What seemed at first an utterly implausible idea became, as i reflected on it, surprisingly possible, though not actually likely.

Having lived in the United States for some twenty years, immersed in what is truly one of the most racially aware, if not racist, cultures in the world, i found myself appreciating the underlying truths on the book: The general fear of the unknown, by Americans in general, because it is different, is clear; the amazing passivity with which huge numbers of Americans allow their government to assume a larger and larger rôle in their lives, despite their constant lip service to the ideals of small government, no matter what that intrusive government does; also, to be fair, the individual kindness or loveliness of many Americans individually rather than en masse (as much as a cliché as it is to say it, while i find the American people in general rather unpleasant, many of my best friends are Americans ~ indeed, i married one). It is part of the novel's interest that the group which is being oppressed is not that group in actuality most discriminated against, African-Americans ~ or whatever the currently correct term is ~ but Vourvoulias has chosen to make the fasted growing ethnic group in the US her victims; this has raised a number of challenges for her, some of which she has risen to quite well, including the matter of a word for the group ~ the titular “ink” ~ which is universally used within the book.

In mine opinion, however, she has been less successful in her treatment of African-Americans themselves, as there is, if i recall correctly, only one identifiably Black character, and there is really no difference between that character and the other non-Inks other than the colour of the skin. The United States is, as mentioned above, one of the most vocally egalitarian, yet practically non-egalitarian, societies in the world, yet the true underclass of the society is that of the African-Americans; they are the group most closely linked with the idea of prejudice, the most underprivileged group, the class closest to the position of the Inks in the novel. I suspect that Vourvoulias found that it would be impossible, if she even thought about trying, to use Blacks as her victims, and anyone she may have run the idea past would have dissuaded her.

Another facet of the book which i found rather distracting, though i can see (or, at least, imagine) that some readers would probably find it one of its strengths, is the intrusion of the generally unseen world of magic into the world of reality. There are several ways in which Vourvoulias allows these worlds to intersect; each of them is, to me, either confusing or annoying. The most consistent manner is that several of the Inks have some form of dæmon or alter ego which occasionally comes to the fore, most notably during times of stress or conflict, in particular when she shows them in conflict with evil dwarves which, while not appearing to actually be alter egos of anyone, are intimately linked with the pain and anguish caused by the government's Ink policies. The most acceptable (to me) intrusion of magic is the ability of one of the non-Inks who helps subvert the government's policies to manipulate the land around him and actually cause it to change, shape or characteristics, to enable people to hide or do things they otherwise wouldn't be able to.

In the end, i'm afraid that Vourvoulias has tried to put too much into a novel which will not carry it. As much as i enjoyed the plot, the conception, the characterisations (and the characters), i found the book as a whole a bit more than i could comfortably read. I would like to have seen the idea developed without some of the extra themes, the magic, or the importance of story-telling. This could have been a superb work of speculative fiction, had it not left so many questions dangling ~ how did the government bring in the Ink policies? what was the political landscape which permitted these developments? do Latins or Hispanics from other than Central and South America (Spain, Portugal, Italy) have to have tattoos? The single idea of the tattoos is so powerful, in mine opinion it should have been allowed to develop fully. A success then, for me, but not as successful as it might have been.

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