“Instead of having her sign a book, I brought one of my tattoo guns, ” says tattooist Chris Erickson, at the Lincoln Park Borders book-signing with fantasy writer Jacqueline Carey, author of the bestselling “Kushiel” novels and inspirer of a unique form of fan devotion: the tattoo.
“That was a new one!” Carey says the next day, recalling Erickson’s signature request. Smiling at the memory, Carey’s deep-set eyes narrow to a Charlie Brown-like squint. She sits outside Argo Tea Café as the sun dips behind the skyscrapers. Though Carey had never been asked to sign a tattoo gun before, tattoos themselves are familiar territory. The main character of her debut trilogy sports a nape to tailbone spinal tattoo of a rose. The design—created by sci-fi/fantasy artist John Jude Palencar—is a common trademark of the Jacqueline Carey fan. Carey’s Web site highlights photos of more than a hundred reader tattoos; naturally, the crowd in Chicago is not without a few inked backs. “I have the rose,” says Ki Arnold, a tourist from Arkansas. “I’m never going to regret having it.”
The epic fantasy genre is no stranger to fanaticism, but it is a rare author who inspires allegiance that results in permanent skin ink. Carey admits that, like her writing, her devotees can be prone to dramatic flare. She enthusiastically regales fan stories, such as a woman who between contractions demanded she be read novel chapters while giving birth. “I never recommend the books to anyone under 18,” Carey explains. That forewarning didn’t reach a 14-year-old girl who was so appalled by the first novel’s sexual content, she not only burned the book, but melodramatically hewed the “smoldering wreckage” with her father’s lawnmower. After a few years of maturation, the teenager revisited the novel and emailed an amused Carey a profound apology.
However, it is the dark, boundary-pushing subject matter that draws a great many readers to Carey’s world. The “Kushiel” novels’ often-repeated theme, “love as thou wilt,” embraces all expressions of love: including homoeroticism and sexual lifestyles that make mainstream conservatives squeamish. Carey explains why a great many readers connect so strongly to her literary fantasies. “I think people who are different in any way—whether it be gender, sexuality or any of the myriad ways we can differ from the perceived norm of humanity—it’s a realm of great liberalism, tolerance and acceptance. It’s a beautiful idea that speaks to many different people.” (Laura Hawbaker)