Series: The Chronicles of Alice #1
Published by Penguin Group on 4th August 2015
Genres: Adult, Dystopian, Fantasy, Horror
Format: e-Book, eBook
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In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinder-block walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.
In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.
And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.
“‘I wish I were a Magician,’ she thought. ‘I’d find all those lost girls and bring them home. I’d take all those men who hurt those girls and make them cry.'”
Well, here we go again.
Retelling classic fairy tales has become rather en vogue in recent years, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has unsurprisingly held the crown for being the go-to choice for authors. It’s the one children’s story that’s always been popular enough to warrant yet another adaptation or “re-imagining,” even before this idea of ‘Let’s Take a Kiddie Tale and Make It Dark and Adult, Because That’s What those Youngsters are Into These Days, Right?’ really took off. Is there another story that’s managed to be done and redone as often?
(If we’re ignoring broad archetypes and monomyths, the answer seems to be ‘no,’ but I’ll award second place to Cinderella, and third to anything involving Spider-man.)
So here we are, with yet another ‘gritty’ take on all of that Wonderland nonsense. And it isn’t really worth getting excited about.
Now, if any and every adaptation of Carroll is of interest to you (they were to me, once upon a time), then you may get a kick out of this one, if only because of how unapologetically ‘grown up’ it is. We’ll address that issue on its own in a bit, but in the meantime, I’ll say that if you’ve just about had your fill of the trend, you likely won’t find much to enjoy here. Had Alice come out several years earlier, than the gimmick would probably have seemed a lot more novel than it does at this point. Now, it’s just a tired bit that should probably be put to rest for a decade or two.
“The Rabbit was a bogeyman, but an old bogeyman, familiar and comforting in the predictability of his evil. The Walrus was a horror not yet seen, a nightmare that she did not want to experience.”
With Henry’s version, the source material that it relies upon is less a solid foundation for the book’s ideas and more a shiny wallpaper that’s been tacked on at the last minute. The plot reads like a nondescript YA horror/dystopian premise that’s had the Alice in Wonderland brand copied and pasted in. Picture a Hunger Games cash-in (the sort that we’ve been drowning in ever since that series hit it big), but one that just so happens to have keywords like ‘The Caterpillar’ and ‘Cheshire’ and ‘The Jabberwocky’ thrown in for character names, along with the occasional description of roses and tea for good measure.
If you’re familiar with that special sort of ‘cutting-edge rebellion’ that a lot of young teens try to demonstrate via shirts from Hot Topic and Internet usernames that have a lot of sixes in them, you’ll have a good idea of how Alice‘s brand of ‘seriousness’ comes across. Many of this book’s attempts at being mature tread that very fine line that separates a concept that is genuinely disturbing from one that is unintentionally ridiculous due to its trying too hard, and they usually come out on the latter side.
So we have Alice, who at the start of the novel is (surprise, surprise) in an asylum. Said asylum is (surprise, surprise) the sort of hellhole that is dime-a-dozen in cheap horror: padded walls, abusive staff, an ancient evil living deep within its bowels. (Three guesses as to which of Carroll’s creations it is, and the first two don’t count.) Her next-door inmate is Hatcher, who is there to be an uncomfortable combination of love interest/guardian/friend, and the two have something of a bond after ten years’ worth of cohabitation and helping one another deal with the personal demons that lead to them being locked up in the first place. Hatcher butchered several men with an axe, and Alice is ‘broken’ after she was discovered covered in blood and raving about ‘the Rabbit.’ After a fire breaks out in the institution, the two manage to escape, only to learn that the Jabberwocky (the shock!) has now also been freed from its cage and will eventually consume the city if left unchecked.
At this point, the story essentially turns into the literary equivalent of an on-rails action adventure: one of those console games where the player has no freedom whatsoever in where to go or how to experience the story. Obviously, a book is not precisely the same, because the consumer (you) has no choice but to go along with whatever the author decided to write in the first place. But most of Alice has a similar feeling of narrowness and limitation: the characters are forced to undertake some journey to meet a Wonderland-based antagonist in their quest to find a weapon that can destroy the Jabberwocky (again, no prizes if you can guess what it is), who then directs them to another, at which point the whole process starts over again. It’s not simply the fact that the text is constantly filled with plot-based reminders of how they ‘have no other choice’ and ‘cannot go back,’ either: it’s a physical railroading as well, with the locales constantly herding Alice and Hatcher in a very specific direction via corridors, hedge mazes, and magical teleportation that happens to dump them where they need to go next.
There’s no sense of freedom or expansiveness to the world as a result. Franchises such as Harry Potter and A Song of Ice and Fire are successful in part because of how beautifully they fill out their universes and allow the people in them to move about. While the story is still limited to those characters that their authors have chosen to focus on, there is enough detail and background to create an illusion of openness despite the fantasy of it: the sense that these people (and the readers who are along for the ride) could go anywhere and do anything. Such a feeling also allows for those nice side-stories and moments that, despite whatever demands that the hero’s quest dictates to focus the direction of the plot, give the cast a chance to demonstrate their personalities and actions beyond what the main conflict requires — to become people.
Here, everything is so clipped and tailored to a single, unwavering series of events that the edges of the world are clear. There’s no meaning or detail except for what is absolutely necessary, so the characters and the mythology that they’re placed in feel undeniably, well, fictional. You can see clearly the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of every bit of dialogue and line of description, so it all feels too deliberate. Instead of losing yourself in another world that you happen to have a window into, you’re reading a checklist that has ‘Basic Storytelling Elements’ written at the top that wasn’t taken beyond an initial outline of necessities. The writing itself is serviceable enough, but doesn’t have enough personality to do much beyond these basic descriptive necessities, and has the annoying tendency to spell out obvious conclusions or repeat basic thoughts that you’re already well aware of. This bare-bones approach is most obvious during every one of the big confrontations with the most notable villains, as each is incredibly anticlimactic and ends before it even begins to get interesting. They come across as a lip-service hurdles that are overcome as easily as is possible to move on to the next one, which ruins whatever interesting ideas these restyled characters had in the first place after they were repeatedly promised to be so supposedly dangerous. The final ‘battle’ with the Jabberwocky is especially bad, which just ends the whole thing on a very flat note.
So we have a boringly straightforward society split into the (creatively titled) Old City and New City. Go ahead and place a wager on what each is like. The former is a cesspool of soot and fog and poverty: a maze of narrow allies and run-down hovels that are fought over by mob bosses with names like ‘The Walrus’ and ‘The Carpenter’ (hardy har har). The latter is a shining utopia of clean streets and wealthy socialites who are given to frivolities and excess. Alice takes place entirely in the Old City, so we’re treated to all of the fun details of what makes it such a terrible place, and therefore what makes this book so dark.
That last bit is meant to sound sarcastic, because I really don’t care for Henry’s idea of what makes a world grim. Can you guess what the keystone of it all is?
“‘He is a man, Alice,’ she thought. ‘And even the best of men might be lured by flesh dangled so willingly before them.'”
Surprise! It’s the (sigh) degradation and objectification of women!
In this magical place, any who does not have a semi-decent fellow to protect and care for her is like to be snapped up by one of the bosses and sold into prostitution for the amusements of their workers. It’s made clear from the beginning that the Rabbit raped Alice, and it nearly happens again with a random pack of men the moment she and Hatcher are out of the asylum. Descriptions of what the various overseers do to everyone else (their ‘property’) are frequent: the Caterpillar’s are called ‘butterflies’ and have wings carved into their backs, and are then required to service the men who come into his club. He also allows men to pay him to indulge in their various vile fantasies with them, which includes breaking their legs beforehand so they can’t run away. The Walrus outright eats the women as he rapes them. Others are shipped out of the Old City to unspecified buyers as children.
What is the point of all of this? Haven’t we had enough of this lazy idea of shock value? Why does a grisly, apocalyptic world always have to default to this sort of thing to demonstrate its credentials? Why does ‘grown-up fiction’ translate into ‘the rape and murder and owning of countless women’? Alice is meant to demonstrate growth throughout the story by learning to fend for herself and meet violence with violence, while still being referred to as ‘the Rabbit’s.’ On those occasions when she is described as being owned by nobody, the statement is promptly contradicted when Hatcher implicitly or explicitly claims her as his own, because he’s the ‘only one who truly understands her’ and we need a half-baked romance for our heroine. Just about every other woman in the plot is either killed or made to run away after Alice (or Hatcher) saves her. It’s all meant to be empowering for Alice, but what good is ’empowerment’ when it’s almost literally built upon the bodies and lives of countless others? What are the credentials of a ‘strong female character’ when she’s the only one allowed to achieve anything, and the rest are left to be mangled and abused?
As a man, it’s not my place to definitively answer those questions or dictate what women should or should not find acceptable when it comes to representation or autonomy, so I’ll leave this particular point be with this: Whatever Henry’s intentions may have been, the execution leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
The over-the-top grisliness, when it isn’t again demonstrating how forced most of the book’s construction is, prevents any of the absurd charm of Carroll’s original story to come through — another reason why so little of Alice feels like an adaptation, and why it instead seems to be an entirely different story that’s had a tried-and-true gimmick thrown in for marketing purposes. Only a few scenes — an encounter with a pack of giant rats, some late conversations between Alice and Hatcher — manage to capture a spark of that illogical goofiness that Wonderland is known for, and they come so late in reading that you’ll have grown so apathetic to all of the ruthlessness that you won’t care much.
Aside from these moments and the fact that Alice is a semi-decent character (to her credit, she does question Hatcher’s feelings for her and isn’t so quick to reciprocate them as she might otherwise have been, and her vulnerability/strength hits a more nuanced balance later in the book), though, this doesn’t strike me as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It strikes me as cruelty and sheer unpleasantness for the sake of ‘being different.’
So… Should I Read It?
I’m going to say that, unless you’re a die-hard Carroll fan who is still taken with any kind of approach to his story, you probably shouldn’t. Then again, it’s a quick enough read that you may want to give it a try anyway, if only for the novelty factor. To me, not even that is worthwhile. Then again, I’m probably going to end up reading the sequel simply to see how the author uses other parts of the mythos that are entirely absent this time around (the Red Queen, the White Queen, the Queen of Hearts, the March Hare, the Mock Turtle…), so who am I to judge?
I’m going to use this one as an excuse to include various songs that have been directly based off of the original story, or at least capture the basic themes of it. It isn’t a subtle collection, I suppose, but then again, neither is anything in this book.