Title: Tattoo Atlas
Author: Tim Floreen
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: Oct 18, 2016
Reading Level: HL700L / 5.0
Challenge: A book recommended by an author you love.
Rating: 3 ½ ★
A year ago, Rem Braithwaite watched his classmate Franklin Kettle commit a horrific crime.
Now, apart from the nightmares, life has gone back to normal for Rem. Franklin was caught, convicted, and put away in juvenile detention for what he did. The ordeal seems to be over.
Until Rem’s mother selects Franklin as a test subject for an experimental brain procedure intended to “cure” him of his cruel and violent impulses. Suddenly Rem’s memories of that day start coming back to the surface. His nightmares become worse than ever. Plus he has serious doubts about whether his mother’s procedure will even work. Can evil really just be turned off? -Simon & Schuster
YAY: Gay protagonist whose story does not revolve around his sexuality, thought-provoking, solid mystery
NAY: Dissatisfying ending, questionable portrayal and discussion of mental illness, lack of character development
Back in October or November, Shaun David Hutchinson hyped Tattoo Atlas on Twitter, and after the sheer gorgeousness that was We are the Ants, I’m pretty sure I’d follow him off a cliff he asked.
I kid, I kid. Kind of.
We didn’t get the book in the library until January, around the time when most of my coworkers and I started our 2017 Reading Challenges. I knew right away that I wanted to pick up Tattoo Atlas for this challenge, because 1.) I trust Shawn David Hutchinson, 2.) The summary sounded interesting, and 3.) I’d been wanting to read something by Tim Floreen since I’d seen his first novel, Willful Machines, on several LGBTQ+ reading lists.
While I had mixed feelings about Tattoo Atlas overall, I do appreciate that Tim Floreen writes gay characters whose stories don’t involve coming out, coming to terms, or sexuality-related problems. If you’re looking for a science fiction book with a gay protagonist without the previously mentioned elements, I would check this out.
The book starts with the main character, Rem, and his friends preparing for the year anniversary of their friend’s death at the hands of Franklin, a boy that used to go to their school. A year ago, Franklin walked in to their history class and shot Rem’s friend in the head. That’s not a spoiler. That’s literally the first line of the book. Now, Rem’s mom, a renowned Neurologist, wants to use Franklin in an experiment to see if the empathy centers in one’s brain can be reactivated in those with neurological disorders. The catch? Franklin will only agree to the procedure if he can talk to Rem.
Floreen really likes exploring the ‘big’ topics, and this book is no exception. While Willful Machines asks questions like, “What does it mean to be human?” and “How much free will does one really have?” Tattoo Atlas explores topics like violence in video games; the bodily autonomy of the mentally ill, minors, and mentally ill minors; how mental illness affects personal responsibility; and how mental illness impacts identity formation. I think these are important questions, however, I don’t know if they were handled in the most effective, considerate way in this book.
First, the characters didn’t seem as fleshed out as they could have been. They seemed like stock roles used just to push these ideas the author is contemplating. While the questions raised are interesting and thought-provoking, the characters should have been able to stand on their own.
Second, the relationship—and there is a relationship—between Rem and Franklin is, to me, kind of disturbing. Franklin murdered Rem’s friend, and might have killed others. He’s a test subject for Rem’s mother. He snuck out of the institute at night, and no one knows how or when he gets out. Yet after briefly questioning it once, Rem doesn’t seem to mind. He has no sense of self preservation.
Finally, the ending ruined the entire book.
After Franklin nearly murders Rem and the truth comes out about the experiment, Franklin shoots himself and dies in Rem’s arms. For me, that nullified every moral question that had been raised during the novel because now the person involved in dead, and no conclusive decision has to be reached. Should children be able make personal decisions regarding their health and welfare? Should prisoners convicted of heinous crimes have bodily autonomy? How much of one’s personality is controlled by chemicals in the brain? Well it doesn’t matter now, because Franklin is dead.
In Floreen’s essay he wrote on Diversity in YA, he says “I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt easy answers exist.” The ending made this abundantly clear. Overall, I can say I enjoyed the ride that was Tattoo Atlas, but the road was bumpy and the destination was disappointing. It wasn’t the book for me, but if you like science fiction, tough questions, and can overlook some of the character development, you might like it better.