Poison Ink: Smart, creative, entertaining storytelling

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Christopher Golden Poison InkPoison Ink by Christopher Golden

Poison Ink is the first YA novel that I’ve ever read by Christopher Golden, and from start to finish, I couldn’t be more impressed. As usual, the first thing that stands out is the author’s top-notch writing. Which in this case encompasses his ability to convincingly adopt the personality of a sixteen-year-old female high school student; faithfully capture domestic, social and high school life — including different cliques, lunch ladies, texting, flirting, and peer pressure — and a gift for witty banter:

“My Clever plan for world domination failed.”
“So what next, evil overlord? What’s Plan B?”
“No Plan B. I met this girl. Makes me think maybe it’s time to leave world domination schemes to my flunkies, stop and smell the roses, blah blah blah. Want to hang out Saturday night?”
“Well, if it means preventing world conquest by a tyrannical madman, it would be selfish of me to say no.”

Characterization is also superb, for both Sammi and her friends. Of the latter, TQ, Caryn, Letty, and Katsuko each have their own distinctive traits — TQ is tall, quiet and shy; Letty is a Puerto Rican lesbian with a bit of a rebellious edge; Caryn is artistic, but has anger management issues; and Katsuko is serious and a bit snobbish — all of which comes into stark focus when they suddenly start behaving completely out character such as cheating, smoking, shoplifiting, dressing slutty, doing lines of coke, and so on. Sammi meanwhile is wonderfully developed, extremely likeable, and has her own set of individual characteristics — I particularly liked Sammi’s love for music which provided numerous opportunities for dropping familiar musical references including Jack Johnson, the Shins, the Strokes, Jason Mraz, Keane, Josh Ritter, the Beatles, Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, etc. At the same time, Chris also does a great job of exploring Sammi’s thoughts and emotions, like the hurt, loneliness, and anger she feels when she’s shunned by her friends; the joy she experiences when she’s around Cute Adam; or the dismay and betrayal she suffers from her parents’ separation.

Structurally, Poison Ink is an incredibly well-crafted novel. There’s an opening fast-forward prologue that immediately sets the tone; characters and plot are given plenty of time to develop even though the pace is page-turning; the middle act is intense and shifts into the second part of the story — which ventures into more horrific/supernatural territory — without any problems; and the dramatic finale is breathtaking, all the more so because Christopher Golden doesn’t flinch away from the harsher aspects of life. In other words, blood is spilled, characters die, love is lost and not all endings are happy.

The only quibble I had with the book was its central concept of tattoos and their link with the paranormal. Considering how popular tattoos are in this day and age — heck, even I have a tattoo — I thought this was a really cool idea. However, aside from a couple of facts about the history of tattoos, some magical symbols and grimoires, this concept was never really explored to its fullest potential. Then again, considering how Poison Ink could be considered a cautionary tale against tattoos, especially if you’re under eighteen, I can understand if the author didn’t want to glorify body modification.

Christopher Golden has consistently delivered smart, creative and entertaining storytelling that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages and tastes, and Poison Ink is no exception. In fact, I actually enjoyed Poison Ink more than some of Christopher’s other adult efforts, and highly recommend the book to teens, Christopher Golden fans, and anyone in the mood to be thrilled, chilled and entertained.

Poison Ink — (2008) Young adult. Publisher: SAMMI, TQ, CARYN, Letty, and Katsuko are floaters. None of them fits in with any particular group at Covington High School — except each other. One night, to cement their bond, the girls decide to get matching, unique tattoos. But when Sammi backs out at the last minute, everything changes. Faster than you can say “airbrush,” Sammi is an outcast, and soon, her friends are behaving like total strangers. When they attack Sammi for trying to break up a brawl, Sammi spies something horrible on her friends’ backs: the original tattoo has grown tendrils, snaking and curling over the girls’ entire bodies. What has that creepy tattoo artist done to her friends? And what — if anything — can Sammi do to get them back? This deliciously creepy psychological thriller is the perfect summer read.

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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