A few years ago, series of coordinated bombings left the United States in a fragmented shambles and left a skilled tattoo artist named Hemingway with two reminders of the attacks. First, he took a piece of shrapnel in his leg that left him with a slight limp. Second, he and several others manifested unique magical abilities. For Hemingway, the magic animates his tattoo art once the needle stops buzzing. This, coupled with a highly publicized account of his saving the life of a fellow bombing victim, have made Hemingway a much sought after tattoo artist, a bona fide celebrity, and very rich.
But all Hemingway wants is to work in peace. He manages to cross the formerly united United States and sets up his shop, Earnest Ink, in what’s left of Manhattan. Life is good—or as good as he can expect. Emma, his state-appointed “therapist,” actually seems to have his best interests at heart, in addition to monitoring his magical abilities; his friend and de facto business partner/receptionist, Eric, keeps his appointment book full; and Hemingway’s wealth allows him to keep up on his T regime. But when his former paramour goes missing, Hemingway knows the timing is too close to the patterns of the serial killer called the Ripper whom his roommate, Thom, tracks obsessively.
Suddenly, Hemingway finds himself leaving the safe cocoon of his studio in an attempt to find his ex-girlfriend. Along the way, he meets dubious allies, from a maniacal fellow magic user named Seraphim and her creep of a partner named Jonathan, to the authorities who are determined to find the Ripper and put away as many dangerous magic users as possible. Each new turn of events brings Hemingway tantalizingly close to the truth, but he never realizes how close he is until he falls into the Ripper’s clutches himself.
Okay, truth be told, I wasn’t really captured by this story at first. My preconceptions about the books I usually review for the blog probably played a big part—that is, I was low-key anticipating a romance and every time a male character appeared on page during the first few chapters, I was looking for signs of attraction/interest. It isn’t until Hemingway’s ex-girlfriend goes missing AND Hemingway himself starts actively looking for her that I started to lose myself in the story, which I would put firmly in the thriller/suspense category. I liked the setting and Hemingway well enough that the early part wasn’t a chore to read, just that it felt a bit slow. However, when Hemingway starts uncovering myriad details about his ex’s disappearance, I couldn’t put the book down.
First, I really enjoyed Hemingway’s characterization. He doesn’t take shit from anyone and keeps the bulk of the world at arms length—celebrity has made him wary of people. That said, I can appreciate his capacity for trust because of his close friendship with Eric and with Thom. I especially enjoyed the wild process of Hemingway begrudgingly bringing Jonathan into his circle. And, personally, as a huge fan of romance, I enjoyed entertaining possibilities of Hemingway/Tremblay hooking up. For clarity’s sake, I would say there are zero over- or undertones of romance on page in the story. I also liked that no one’s sexuality was ever really a topic of discussion. For what it’s worth, I did feel like Hall has written certain relationships to be open to the reader’s interpretation. Specifically, I could see Hemingway and Thom getting together or Hemingway and Tremblay, or even him getting back with his ex-girlfriend.
The world building was also fun to read. The state of the U.S. is clearly fractured. You need visas to travel to other states and there is a dearth of once common commodities like soda and medicine. Tattoo paraphernalia and electricity seem okay, though. There are clearly some apparent “discrepancies,” but the way Hall handles the descriptions of who has access to what makes it seem like an intentional choice not to outline exactly how limited supplies are or how fractured the U.S. is. Plus, what descriptions we get are frequent and allowed me to build an attractive (for want of a better word) mental picture of a dystopian near-future.
But the highlight for me was the stunning string of events that comprise the last half to last third of the book. It was here that I could really appreciate how Hall works the side characters into the story so they don’t just appear when it’s convenient for Hemingway. At this point, the thriller elements really begin to take shape in the story and sucked me in. Against the well-established functional-dystopia setting, the addition of a bit of horror and suspense combine to make some compelling storytelling.
Overall, this is a book that eases you into a story that develops into a wild thriller/suspense. It features a gritty dystopian America, a trans hero, and a variety of supporting characters that I grew to love. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in these themes or to anyone who is interested in a good thriller/suspense.