Sunday, February 13, 2011

Monster Blood Tattoo, Book 1, The Foundling, by D. M. Cornish

Imagine a world where the oceans are vinegar, the wilds are infested with monsters of all shapes and sizes, and chemists are people who develop monster-killing compounds. It's a world that has elements of 18th century Holland and a hint of steampunk and a great deal of adventure potential. Cornish is brilliant at world-building, endlessly inventive in his details and gorgeously evocative with his language. A vinegaroon is a sailor, one who plies the vinegar seas. A lahzar is a person who has had their body surgically altered to give them unusual monster-fighting powers, like the ability to throw electricity. A monster blood tattoo is an image of a monster that you killed, using the monster's blood as ink. That is just . . . wicked.

Now into this world throw an orphan boy with a girl's name: Rossamund, the Foundling of the title. He is earnest, bookish and sensitive, but eager to go out into the world and find his place in it. His straightforward plans get derailed, of course, and the rest of the book is one adventure after another as he tries his best to get where he's supposed to go. Some fantasy novels (particularly those written by artists (Cornish began his career as an illustrator)) have characters and plots that are merely an excuse to go wandering around the wonderful fantasy world. Not this one. Rossamund is a compelling protagonist and we are completely invested in his story. The world, rich as it is, unfolds as the necessary backdrop to Rossamund's trials, not as the primary interest of the novel. The supporting characters are all complex and fascinating, and there are mysteries yet to be explained.

Cornish's illustrations are wonderful, conveying a sense of both the characters and the atmosphere.
This is the cover image I found on the web; not the cover of the book I bought, which is dark red-brown with several character portraits. This one is the new North American edition of the series, which, if you look closely, is now called The Foundling's Tale, not Monster Blood Tattoo. I suppose that since librarians and parents are the most likely purchasers of the books, the publishers thought Monster Blood Tattoo might be too off-putting. (If it were 12-year-old boys with the disposable income, there's no question which title is more appealing!)

I'm trying to think of something comparable to Monster Blood Tattoo, but there really isn't anything else like it. You might enjoy it if you like steampunk, even though it isn't steampunk. It's probably the same reading level and similar adventure-style as the Septimus Heap books. There are horror elements, but I was never biting my nails in anxiety. Although it is a dark world and a dark story, there is a certain humour underlying it all. Cornish might just be doing a little satirizing here and there.

I'm going to call this book a thin-crust wood-oven pizza with spinach, garlic, roasted red peppers, pineapple, and feta. Original, multi-flavoured and quite delicious. (Feel free to substitute your own gourmet pizza combination if you don't like mine. Just don't make it pepperoni green pepper extra mozza.)

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