I got this book for review on a whim, and I am so happy that I did because it completely took over my life yesterday. I started reading it in the early morning and I couldn't put it down -- I read all day. And to be honest I was a little worried after I requested it because I had previously read a book by John Tristan that I DNF'ed and I think it might have been his first book. I just couldn't get into the writing and I kinda liked it but also didn't. So I couldn't believe that I had none of the same issues with this book that I did with that earlier book. And if this author keeps writing books like this then I'll definitely stick around and keep reading!
When his father dies with a multitude of debts, Etan is forced to sell his home and all his belongings and travel to the capital city of Kered to look for work. His only skills are his ability to read and write, and while those are rare abilities for a country boy, with no money to garner an apprenticeship, his only choice is manual labor, something he's unable to do because of a sickness as a child that stunted his growth. He's pale and petite, and saved by a man in a rickshaw when beaten in the street. The man offers to send him to a place to stay, where he learns after a few days is a home for indentured servants. His only option thereafter is to sign away his rights and work for this man in trade for a place to stay and food to eat.
When the man sees Etan without bruises and washes he almost doesn't recognize him, but he has an even better idea of work for him. Etan is introduced to Roberd Tallisk, a tattoo artist whose patron is the head of the Council, run by the Blooded, the ruling class of Kered society who possess magic believed descended from the gods themselves. There, Etan's slave bond is bartered between the two men when Tallisk agrees to take Etan on as his new work of art, an Adorned. The Adorned have always mystified those of the lower classes. They're those of beauty who are tattooed by master tattoo artists with enchanted ink to become living works of art for the pleasure of the Blooded. Their art is not allowed to be seen by those who aren't Blooded or the artist. And no one else but the tattoo artists are allowed to wear ink.
Etan's new life seems wonderful and exciting. He's protected now for life with gifts of riches from patrons and by the ink he wears on his skin. But there is also an aspect of being Adorned that he never expected. He soon learns the hard price to pay when he starts to mingle with the elite of Keren society and exactly what they expect from him. And he finds himself a pawn, a sort of Mata Hari in the political play between two warring factions for the future of the Keren society.
There are two things that I love most about this story and they go behind the tattoo art (which is super cool) and a lot of the other little details that made this story come alive for me. First is the epic quality of the story. We really get to see Etan's life played out over a lot of major changes in his life that also herald major changes for the whole world. We meet Etan when he's young, still living at home with his father and before he's had to completely depend on himself and we get to see how he changes over time. I typically prefer characters who are alive, present and very decisive about their lives in fiction, especially in fantasy worlds. Etan is alive and present, certainly, but he's also like a piece of detritus in a massive current once he makes it to the city. He's buffered on all sides by those making choices for him. I can't see him acting any other way certainly, as someone who has very little choices, but he's also very internal and cautious. I didn't see those parts of his personality changing until much later because it was such a slow change, but Etan grows as the world changes around him and as he needs to take more of his own care for himself.
The second thing I really loved was the cast of characters. We meet a multitude of secondary characters, most of whom are a good sort, and a faction of those who are good people who make some bad choices. As the world in the story changes, it reveals the best and worst of the characters and each of them are made to understand their regrets, in particular Isadel and Lord Haqan Loren. All of them, however, are well rounded characters that we get to know rather well. And this was done sometimes in a rather subtle fashion. The writing requires the reader to be present and active in piecing the world together and in drawing connections, and I can't tell you how often I find myself wishing for writing like that.
You might not find this story to be perfect, or it might not impact you as much as it did me. Part of how you feel about it, in the end, will depend on what you like most in your romance books. The relationship between Etan and Tallisk is very slow to build and it takes almost the full length of the novel for the two to really come together. The bulk of the story is rather Etan's journey and finding himself, someone who still feels like a country boy, realizing that he's a good person with heart amid vultures who would pick at him until there's nothing left. He has to realize what he really wants out of life, if it is security or love and if those things are separate.
I finished the book wanting more, sad that the story ended and hoping there was a way a sequel could be written, lol. I don't think that's really possible. But I know now that I'll definitely keep my eye on book by John Tristan and I hope that it isn't too long from now that I find another book that I get so lost in.