Not all monsters look like monsters. Some everyday folk are the worst monsters of all.
While I felt a bit misled by the cover, I thought this an excellent book. I was expecting something edgier and darker heading into it and was at first disappointed at the age of the character and how it felt in some ways more like a "J" than a "YA." That's a mostly superficial reaction on my part, though, because there is blood and gore, plenty of nasty characters and evil deeds, and hints of some really dark magic. I think it feels a bit young because our point of view is Rossamund's. He has lived his entired life sheltered and isolated from the world in his orphanage, and all he knows of the world is what he's been taught and has read. He's experiencing the everything for the first time and is overly naive and trusting, so that's the perspective we get for our first encounter with the Half-continent. Looking through that perspective to his actual experiences, though, we find quite a lot of complexity. Characters aren't simply good or bad, but a mix of both.* And Rossamund struggles with moral and ethical questions without ever finding a simple answer. Both people and issues are characterized by three-dimensional shades of grey (as opposed to a simplistic black-and-white). A first scratch leaves the impression this might be a book for younger readers, but dig deeper and you'll find no lack of substance.
Another take on the book having substance is the plot itself. This is obviously just the beginning of Rossamund's story and our introduction to the Half-continent, but it feels like a full tale. Not a complete one, but I wasn't left feeling like nothing had happened. This is impressive especially in light of the fact that the book only represents a couple of weeks of Rossamund's life. And there's the fact that the last quarter of the book is a glossary. Cornish has obviously spent a great deal of time developing his setting and background for the book, and even though much of it doesn't directly impact the story, it's in there making things fuller.
Most importantly, though, is that I find myself lingering on the book and revisiting it in my mind. I read a lot of books and some I forget as soon as I put them down. Whenever one sticks with me for a while I know there is something commendable about it. This is one, and I'm eagerly awaiting the next volume in the series.
*Licurius, for example, seems a rather unreedeming character. He wanted to kill Rossamund and from that character's perspective he's obviously no good. But his chosen profession in life is intended as a noble one, protecting his fellow everymen from the monsters. And Europe, who obviously sees something good in Rossamund, also sees something good in Licurius. Even when the glossary describes him as having taken the lead in the "wicked and infamous" things he and Europe have done, I can't dismiss him as entirely bad. The quote I opened this post with is obviously central for the author since he uses it as the intro to the website. The story implies that Rossamund was thought of with special fondness by the adults who raised him, one of whom gave him this warning. And Licurius, who is ultra sensitive to the scent of monsters, smelled something about Rossamund that brought out his bloodlust. So I'm thinking one of the big revelations of the series will be that Rossamund is part monster in some way. Which means Licurius wasn't really wrong to suspect the boy, but in fact doing something good from his perspective. He still may ultimately be evil for judging people/monsters by their blood/appearance instead of their character, but it's a complex evil that takes a bit of analysis to get at.
Monster Blood Tattoo website (still a bit skimpy, but developing)
Monster Blood Tattoo blog (the second book has been submitted to the editors)
The Half-Continent (under construction)