Review: “Ink,” Sabrina Vourvoulias

Pros: Vivid; amazing characters; scary
Rating: 5 out of 5

I’m floored by Sabrina Vourvoulias’s dystopian fantasy Ink. Journalist Finn Riordan is covering immigrant-related stories in a world where immigrants are required to wear identity tattoos and speak only English. He meets and falls in love with Mari, an American citizen who was born in Guatemala. At a time when people are doing things like kidnapping “inks” (people with tattoos) and dumping them across one of the borders, Mari and her friend Nely disappear. Abbie is a young woman who’s been in trouble with the law, and has to do community service hours at her mother’s “inkatorium,” basically an internment camp for inks. There people are fitted with GPS trackers and held against their will. Supposedly it’s meant to house sick immigrants, but of course that’s just an excuse to lock people up. Abbie ends up deciding to break out two particular inks with the help of her boyfriend, John. Mari has a “spirit twin” of a jaguar, who can help to protect her. Her village was destroyed by kaibil, or evil dwarves. Del, Finn’s brother-in-law, possesses a kind of earth magic that he uses to protect a bunch of inks living on his land–right up until he’s hit by a car and left permanently disabled. Then he has to find other ways to help inks evade the law. Things start to come to a head as mobs form, cities burn, and mass deportations ensue.

The characters in this book are some of the most fully-realized I’ve ever seen. Abbie’s mother, who is complicit in some of the horrors brought down on inks, turns out to care more about her daughter than it might seem. Toño, a gang leader, steps into the action in some unexpected ways. Del, who falls for a Cuban chemist called Meche, is still caught up in a strained relationship with his not-quite-ex-wife. After Mari’s been missing for months, Finn has to try to figure out whether he actually loves her, or is just caught up in the remnants of the rush of feelings that comes on at the first blush of a relationship. Nothing’s simple, and no character is totally ‘good’ or totally ‘bad’.

This tale is particularly apt right now, when immigration is such a hot topic. It isn’t actually that hard to imagine the things in this book happening, which makes it all the scarier. It gets into the ways in which news reporting gets compromised. It delves into the ways in which tattoos are used to make it easy for non-inks to ostracize inks. At one point, Del, who isn’t an ink, gets ostracized after he sits with inks at a funeral, because that just isn’t done. The tattoos have been used to emphasize the “other”-ness of the immigrants, and it splits the population terribly. Luckily this isn’t a story of white people as saviors. Immigrants and non-immigrants both work together to save the people they love. Just so you know: content warning for rape. It’s handled very well, though.

The pacing is excellent. I shed tears at a couple of points. I remember reading the last chapters with my fist against my mouth because the tension was so high. I truly cared about the characters and wanted to see things work out for them. The book is neither overly depressing nor overly optimistic, allowing the plot and characters to speak for themselves. The touches of fantasy add a bit of magic to the story without overwhelming it. This is one of those rare books I think everyone could benefit from reading.

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