528 pages, Razorbill
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
Slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails. That's what little boys are made of according to the old rhyme. Advances in medical science have proven this to be utter bollocks but those of us with any experience with young lads will know exactly what the rhyme is getting at. Little boys are pretty revolting creatures. Whether they are running around with their fingers up their noses, farting on their siblings' heads, pulling wings off insects or drawing grisly pictures of flaming orphanages, little boys can be comfortably relied upon to turn a perfectly innocent game into a full on imaginary bloodbath. Teenage boys are even worse. When not locked in their room, sweatily engaged in pleasures of the palm these acne-ridden youths can be found aimlessly hanging around street corners, showering the pavements with spit and found mumbling charmless compliments to passing females. Their primary interests tend to be violent video games, violent films and internet pornography (most likely the violent kind).
Appealing to these socially awkward, greasy adolescents has been a matter of consternation for countless writers for hundreds of years. Robert Louis Stevenson's “Treasure Island” is a great example of a book aimed at this bloodthirsty young market. The adventurous tale of pirates and buried treasure also included scenes of brutality and violence which remains pretty shocking today (Don't believe me? Go and read the prolonged gunfight in part four of the book – it is staggeringly violent). Unfortunately, when faced with the choice between reading a book and playing “Call of Duty 3” on Xbox Live most teenage boys would grunt unintelligibly, scratch themselves and reach for the joypad.
Sam Enthoven's debut novel, “The Black Tattoo” is unashamedly aimed at teenage boys. It's got magic, kung-fu fighting, samurai swords, hideous demons, vomiting bats and enough action to satisfy even the shortest of attention-spans. What the novel lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in sheer inventiveness. Just when you think that you've figured out the direction the novel is taking, Enthoven throws yet another curveball and the storyline veers off in yet another bizarre direction.
The story follows Jack and Charlie, two teenage boys with typical teenage problems and anxieties. Hot-headed Charlie is struggling to come to terms with the separation of his parents. The quieter, more introspective Jack feels as though he exists in the shadow of his better-looking, more charming best friend. This gnawing jealousy doesn't get any better when his friend finds himself inheriting supernatural powers. All of a sudden, Charlie can pull off a phenomenal range of martial arts moves, he can shoot fireballs out of his hands... hell, he can even fly. To top it all, his new powers have also left him marked with an awesome tattoo that flows like some kind of liquid across his back and arms. As Charlie flexes his new-found muscles, Jack can't help but feel like their friendship is under threat. The boys find themselves drawn into a cabal of secretive warriors who have devoted their lives to battling a fearsome demon known as the Scourge. When Charlie finds himself under the demon's control, Jack is forced to journey to the depths of hell in order to save his friend and stop the Scourge from destroying the universe. I could go on and reveal just how utterly bonkers Enthoven's story gets but I don't want to spoil any of the increasingly outlandish surprises that lie in store for the reader.
Enthoven's style is straightforward and uncomplicated. There's plenty of vivid descriptions when they are needed (a great example being the sense of awe and wonderment that Enthoven creates when his characters first glimpse the epic vastness of hell) and he writes the action (of which there is plenty) in suitably crisp, clipped prose. In fact, Enthoven's control of language during the pulse-pounding sequences of gladiatorial combat in hell is worthy of special mention. As many writers will tell you, emotion is easy to get down on paper but accurately capturing fast-paced and convincing action is no mean feat. Enthoven's book is so full of fist fights. swordplay, shattered bones and gushing demon blood that it reminds me of some bizarre literary adaptation of the videogame “Mortal Kombat”. “The Black Tattoo” is unlikely to win any accolades but if there was a prize for “best written scene where a teenager drinks bat-vomit”, this would definitely be a contender.
Of course, being aimed at teenage boys, the novel is unlikely to attract much praise from older readers. This is a bit of a shame because, whilst totally over the top and wholly ridiculous, “The Black Tattoo” is also fantastically good fun and a perfect antidote to the winter blues. The insane plot moves at a frenetic pace and whilst it could be criticised for being a little on the immature side, it never fails to be entertaining. If you're looking for sickly sweet romance or a thought-provoking exploration of the human psyche, you're in for a big disappointment. However, if your horrible inner child is hungry for a ludicrously silly romp through the bowels of hell, don't hesitate to pick this one up.
Hereward L.M. Proops