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Monday, May 5, 2014

Marcella Burnard: LIVING INK SERIES

Author:  Marcella Burnard
Series:  LIVING INK    
Plot Type:  Urban Fantasy UF     
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles:  Intermix Books (Penguin)
          Nightmare Ink (4/2014, e-book only)   
          Novel 2 (11/2014)   

     In general, I don't review novels/series that appear only in electronic form, but this one was a Top Pick for RT Book Reviews (April, 2014), so I though I'd give it a try. Click HERE to read the RT review.  

     The series is set in an alternate Seattle where magic can be used to infuse life into tattoos. A Live Ink tattoo is not just a picture of a mythological creature (e.g., dragon, hippogriff, griffin); it actually is that creature. The creature's spirit is alive, bound inside the host's soulsort of like a demon possession, but with body art. In the first days of their binding, the person and the tattoo go through a get-acquainted process and then begin to coexist. Unfortunately, if the Live Ink creature overpowers its human host, bad things can happen, mostly because these creatures lack any sort of humanity, and they are big, scary, and hungry for human energy. Live Ink can go bad for a number of reasons, including the use of drugs or alcohol, which can weaken the host's consciousness to the point that the Inky creature can take control of the host's mind and physical body. Not everyone can handle Live Inkonly those with a modicum of magic within themselves. All Live Ink tattoo artists are magic practitioners because everything about Live Ink is based completely on magic.  (This concept of Live Ink reminds me of the five demons tattooed on Maxine's body in Marjorie M. Liu's HUNTER KISS SERIES. Click HERE to read my reviews of that series.)

     If Living Ink goes bad, the only way to get it under control is to bind its power, and in Seattle, there is only one registered binder: the series heroine, Isa Romanchzyk (rhymes with romantic). Early in the story, Isa is asked why a person would get a Living Tattoo. She responds, "Live Ink makes you more than you were. Your talents and your skills are augmented. You live longer….Live Ink hosts age; they just seem to do it in slow motion…because Living Tattoos confer rapid healing. If you have Ink, you don't get sick….Normal wear on the human body doesn't accumulate." (Chapter 2) As you would expect, Isa binds a great many clients from Seattle's underworld, where power is the key to survival and where drugs and alcohol are all too easy to obtain. 

     In order to enforce the Acts of Magic Law, which governs all aspects of Live Ink, the government has established the Acts of Magic Bureau of Investigations Office (AMBI). The Seattle Police Department also has its own Acts of Magic investigative unit. 

    Isa barely survived her abusive childhood. Eventually she was rescued by three Navajo mystics who recognized her magic and taught her how to create Live Ink and how to bind it. After the disappearance of her mentors in an incident that added another dark layer to Isa's tragedy-filled life, she apprenticed to a tattoo artist named Triple J. While she was with Triple J, she had an affair with another apprentice, Daniel Alvarez, but for various reasons that are explained in the first novel, that affair ended and Isa left Weird Ink and opened her own shop, Nightmare Ink. 

     Isa has a small, but loyal, circle of friends: Gus, her partner, who does flat (i.e., non-magical) tattoos; Nathalie, a piercing artist; Oki, an accountant and computer expert; and Steve Corvane, a detective who serves as the head of the Seattle Police Department's Acts of Magic unit. Steve recruited Isa to be his Live Ink consultant two years ago, so whenever a  host's Live Ink requires binding, she takes care of it. Steve is also Isa's love interest.

     Isa has a PETA-like attitude towards Living Ink creatures. She views them as beautiful, primitive creatures whose savage behavior is an expression of their innate animal instincts, not a manifestation of evil. She realizes that if the Live Ink creatures break free of their hosts, they kill innocents, but she still respects their right to life. For Isa, the problem with binding is that in order to save the life of the human host, she is forced to destroy the Live Ink creatures because she has no other choiceat least not as the series opens. 

            NOVEL 1:  Nightmare Ink              
     As the series opens, Steve and his team bring Isa a man who is losing control of his Living Ink creaturea dragon. By the time that Isa gets the man on into her warded studio, the dragon has taken control, ripping free of the man's body and escaping out into the world. The search for the murderous dragon forms the backbone of the plot. Each time the dragon kills someone, the local AMBI officer, Anne Macquarie, drags Isa to the crime scene in an attempt to track it down.

     About a quarter of the way into the book, Isa repairs a Live Ink tattoo that was created by Daniel Alvarez. That tattooa phoenixis on the verge of taking control of its host, a friend of Isa's. Isa knows in her heart that she should bind the tattoo, but she can't bring herself to destroy this beautiful creature. She has promised herself never to use Live Ink again, but she does it anyway even after receiving several threatening messages warning her not to interfere. Shortly after this incident, Daniel kidnaps Isa and tortures her for six weeks, inking her with a massive, leathery-winged Live Ink monster. The scene in which Daniel tortures Isa meets the definition of horror fiction, so be aware that it is extremely gruesome and emotionally distressing. 

     By this time, Isa has figured out that Daniel is responsible for the dragon and its murderous journey through the city, but now she has to deal with her own Live Ink creature, whom she nicknames Murmur because he incessantly talks inside her head, mostly spewing hateful, derogatory threats about how he plans to destroy her soul and take over her body. A problem that emerges at this point is that the author provides no print clues as to when Isa is speaking internally to her beast and when she is speaking aloud. Murmur's speeches are italicized, but Isa's internal dialogue is not. From this point on, the plot follows two story lines: the Seattle PD's search for Daniel and the dragon and Isa's attempts to coexist with her new inner beast.

     Burnard has created a fascinating and fresh mythology, but it is weakened by bumpy, sometimes skimpy, exposition and an uneven plot. Although Isa's character is well-developed, the supporting characters are flat and somewhat stereotypical. Anne is portrayed one-dimensionally as a nasty, aggressive shrew who takes a major dislike to Isa from the moment they meetand for no apparent reason. We don't get any back story on Anne except for one stray remark that she has no magic. Although Isa's friends (Gus, Oki, and Nathalie) are nice enough people, they are also portrayed in a one-dimensional manneras unnaturally happy, positive people who seemingly have nothing else to do in their lives but protect and support Isa. 

     Although Daniel is the villain, his true motivations are never made clearat least not to me. What started him on his dark quest for power? Exactly why is Isa so important to him? Who is it that Isa sees looking out of Daniel's eyes? Is he possessed by Live Ink, or by something else? 

     Steve's characterthe stereotypical hard-working, frustrated copis O.K. until he begins expecting things from Isa that don't jibe with their past relationship. For example, he makes a big deal of the fact that she never told him the tragic facts of her miserable childhood, but they don't appear to have had a relationship close enough for her to bare her soul to him. That's what makes their single bedroom scene so ludicrous and gratuitous. There's no lead in to the sceneno romantic looks or flirty remarksand there's no follow-upno discussion or change in their behavior towards one another after the deed is done. 

     Murmur became my favorite character as he slowly changed his attitude toward Isa and her human world, although his huge emotional turn-around in the climactic showdown scene at the end was implausibly abrupt.

     I'm hoping that now that Burnard has established her mythology and introduced her characters that she will polish her plotting and characterization skills and give us a better story in book 2. I love the Live Ink mythology and am intrigued by the cliff-hanger ending that signals a new type of relationship for Isa, Murmur, and Steve.

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