Allia Lillian Matthews. I looked at the skin on my arms, proud of the the name my family had given me and the achievements that were marked there. At sixteen, I worked hard to be at the top of my class. Every time I aced a proficiency test before moving to the next grade, one of the horizontal lines tattoed on my right arm was thickened or lengthened. I loved looking at the different colored lines, dots, and marks.
There weren't many, other than the ones required by the government, but some of my peers were already inking their bodies with other symbols and designs to present themselves to the world. Anyone could see who they were, what they believed, and what they had achieved so far. My brooding gaze darted around the loud, utilitarian classroom filled with chattering students, landing on the back of a neck two rows in front of me.
The boy's dark, cropped hair dangled above the lion's claw etched there. I knew the rest of the lion's body was marked across Brycen Levi Martin's brown left shoulder because he'd bragged about it to everyone in class once the tattoo was complete. The homeroom teacher hadn’t arrived in the classroom yet, so most of the students were goofing off. They congregated in small groups around the room, giving Brycen and his cohorts a wide berth.
My eyes narrowed, and I scratched something on the notebook paper in front of me that I wouldn't dare say aloud.
Lions were a symbol of nobility and courage, but Brycen was far from either of those things. He was the school's worst bully, and most of his sycophantic posse followed him because they feared speaking out against his many cruelties. Anyone who didn't bow to Brycen's whims, cater to his directives, or give him what he wanted was instantly labeled as the enemy. If you weren't with him, then you were against him.
It was this narrow-minded, backwards mentality that kept Brycen near the bottom of the class's academic-proficiency roster. The teachers and administrators didn’t say anything about Brycen’s behavior because he was an inter-city exchange student, and I suspected that they didn’t want to cause trouble with the other school by filing a complaint about him. If they did, it might cause some sort of backlash on our students that were there – or on the school itself. Besides, they only had to endure Brycen as a student for a few more months until the school term ended.
“Move,” Brycen barked at a student who sat down too close to him.
Startled, Regan Edgar Peters’ brows furrowed in confusion, and he popped up. “Oh, I’m sorry. Is someone sitting here?”
Every student in the room ceased talking, and my eyes widened. I subtly shook my head at Regan, trying to catch his eye. Regan was a new student who had transferred a few weeks ago during the middle of the school year, and he didn’t have any friends that I knew of. So, he didn’t know that no one questioned Brycen without some sort of penalty.
“Are you questioning me?” Brycen growled darkly.
Brycen stood, and I watched the shoulders in his back tense. I vigorously shook my head at Regan. The answer was no.
Seeing my movement, Regan’s puzzled gaze found mine. I’m not sure what he read there, but I knew things were going to go downhill when Regan’s jaw clenched. Eyeing Brycen, Regan shifted his stance. There was no mistaking the challenge in his body language, and it was confirmed with his next words.
“I am, and I’ll ask another one. Are you trying to bully me?”
Brycen’s hands curled into fists. He wasn’t daft enough to start a fight in the classroom, but he would wait to corner Regan in the bathroom, during a break, or after school. Fear pumped through my veins. Why was Regan standing up to Brycen? All he had to do was remain quiet, keep his head down, and try not to annoy Brycen. The very things he wasn’t doing right now.
Regan scanned the classroom, noticing how the other students silently watched. No one tried to help him because we all knew what would happen. Brycen relentlessly picked on anyone who opposed him.
“I understand that many of you are scared of Bryson, but remaining silent won’t keep you safe. You’re all allowing Brycen to dictate your ability to stand up for what is right or wrong, and you’ve given him power by letting him manipulate your actions,” Regan said in a loud, firm voice.
An uncomfortable murmur swept through the room, and everyone glanced uneasily at each other. Regan’s word had struck something deep within us. Since Brycen’s arrival, we’d allowed him to individually terrorize us by not standing together. Brycen grunted with anger and signaled to his followers to surround Regan. My view of him was blocked, and I swallowed, feeling my pulse kick hard against the thin skin on my neck.
No one moved to help him, and I glanced at the clock: twenty minutes before the first bell rang. The homeroom teacher might walk in before then, but there was no guarantee of that. I grit my teeth, looking at the marks on my arm. If my skin was marked in this moment, what would it show?
Trembling, I took a breath and did something that I never thought I would do. I pushed away from my desk and intervened, breaking my silence. I couldn't let Regan stand against the school’s most notorious bully alone.
“Stop!” I cried.
Caution: This next part may contain spoilers.
What I liked Most About This Book:
1. I enjoyed that Alice Broadway created an entirely new type of religious and government system that revolves solely around the tattoos on a person's skin. Every event in a person's life is marked on their skin - even crimes. Leora, the main character, is reassured by the fact that she can "read" people's skin and "know who they are". However, what she thinks she knows about the world drastically shifts once she graduates school and begins to work. Leora begins to learn about the world of "blanks", people who don't have marked skin and were forced out of Saintstone a long time ago. The society that she lives in has more secrets than she knew - and so does she.
2. After Leora's father dies, she finds solace in the fact that his skin tells a wonderful story. In the society that Broadway created, once a person dies their skin is taken off of the body and bound into a "book" so the family can remember them. Honestly, this part was somewhat disturbing for me, lol. It was uncomfortable to think about holding a book where the cover and pages were grafted from the skin of someone who I had loved that was deceased. However, what I enjoyed about this aspect was that it was an entirely new concept of remembering the dead, and it fit well into the society of Saintstone that Broadway created where the skin's marks were extremely important. Each "skin book" was judged by the town's system that seemed to be both a mixed government and religious institution. If the examined marks told the story of a good person, the person's soul was "saved" and their book was preserved and given to their family. If the person had committed crimes or other misdeeds in their life, the reigning institution in Saintstone judged the person's soul as "not saved" and their books were burned in a fire.
3. Beneath the entirety of the system that Broadway creates is a lurking darkness. Something isn't as it seems, and Leora begins to question everything she knows. The things that were once comfortable and familiar no longer are, and the people that she thought she knew and could trust begin to seem like strangers. In the end, Leora must make a choice between what she thought was true and the new truths she is beginning to learn.
Why I Enjoyed These Things Most:
I liked how Broadway created an entirely new world based solely around the tattoos on someone's skin. Leora's struggle to accept a truth that she's never been in a situation to acknowledge makes this a good coming-of-age story. I think it will resonate with many teen readers who are struggling to figure out their place in the world, and who are questioning the world around them. There is a cliffhanger ending, so I'm pleased that there are two more books that follow this one. If you like unique, coming-of-age stories, then give this book a try!
If you liked this post, click the heart at the bottom, and don't be shy about sharing it with friends!