For most people, a tattoo has a meaning behind it, a special significance, even if it is as simple as that band you used to like that got you through your teenage years, or that boy you thought you would spend the rest of your life with, there is meaning behind them.
Poor Harry Hendrick is a reporter for a local newspaper where the most exciting thing he normally covers is problems with the Meals-on-Wheels service. He certainly didn’t intend to get a tattoo, so when he wakes up and finds one on the back of his neck, he chalks it up to a few too many at the stag party the night before. Just some drunken mistake. These things happen, right?
But then a second one appears. And a third. Each one accompanied by a vivid nightmare; a massacre in Afghanistan, a refugee boat sinking, murders, mayhem, and each time he wakes it’s to more pain and more ink stitched into his skin. His investigation into the meaning of the tattoos and their potential cause leads him down a dark path of political intrigue, corruption, murder and unfinished business that demands a price be paid in blood.
READ MORE: Vengeful (V.E. Schwab) – Book Review
The first novel from author Gary Kemble, Strange Ink is an ambitious tale of ancient magic, mysticism and revenge that, sadly, doesn’t quite live up to the tagline “Nightmares can get under your skin“. While a thoroughly enjoyable read, with a collection of interesting characters fleshing it out and a story that’s got very little in the way of excess fat or waffle, the shock of the opening chapter is never quite matched by anything in the rest of the story. The action scenes are executed well, the moments where Harry finds himself almost a passenger in his own body are vividly described, as is the world he inhabits. Set in Australia, you can almost smell the barbecues and the dust, taste the beer on your tongue and feel the heat beating down on your skin.
The story is let down in a couple of places by events that seem to be hinting at something else going on, but which ultimately lead nowhere. Multiple occasions during the story, Harry wakes up from his nightmare to find his phone has somehow run out of charge overnight. This happens repeatedly, hinting that perhaps something is going on, that he is maybe using it while he was asleep or in some kind of fugue state… and then it is forgotten about and the story moves on. The same happens with his car, with the supposedly brand new battery somehow running flat repeatedly but we are never given a clear explanation of why. Was the power from those batteries somehow fuelling the appearance of the tattoos? Who knows? A perfect example, sadly, of Chekhov’s Gun going sadly unused and instead gathering dust on the wall.
Minor complaints aside, this is a fine first novel and while it is light on the horror aspect, it draws you into Harry’s world, makes you feel his confusion and fear, carries you along with him as he joins the dots together one by one until we reach a conclusion that is nicely satisfying. Strange Ink is a great first novel and Gary Kemble is definitely an author to watch.