With all the stress of life, I felt myself yearning for something that I could read as a kind of palate cleanser, and I was directed toward the YA fantasy of my dreams in the form of L.L. McKinney’s excellent debut novel A Blade So Black. As a present-day interpretation of Alice in Wonderland, A Blade So Black takes a fresh look at the characters and the mythos of the story. Alice’s travels to Wonderland are no accident — it is only after three months of intense training by her mentor Addison Hatta that he takes her there via a Gateway in the storage closet of his pub in Atlanta called The Looking Glass. And the training was very necessary because Wonderland is created by the dreams of humanity, and sometimes there are nightmares. Alice, as a human, is uniquely qualified over those native to Wonderland to destroy nightmares, because she contains what they call “Muchness”.
It would be lying to say that this book, both modern and magnificent, is all fun and games. A Blade So Black goes into some pretty dark places, opening with our protagonist, Alice, caught up in grief and reeling from shock over the recent death of her father, being attacked by a monster both not of and created by her world. And the grief doesn’t stop there. Alice fights nightmares, which manifest in Wonderland whenever there is a concentration of negative emotions and bad dreams in the human world. As a Dreamwalker, it’s her job to stop them while they are still in Wonderland, because they are stronger once they cross the veil into the human world. (Coincidentally, she gets stronger when she is in Wonderland, as the place basically gives her superpowers. Pretty awesome.) Once Alice has been established in her role as a badass Dreamwalker and has some experience under her belt, the story picks up because there has been an uptick in nightmares, all because of a horrific and all too common event – namely, an incident of gun violence. A Blade So Black is fantasy, yes, and there are monsters, and people cursed or poisoned, but there are also people who die because of what happens in everyday life, be it illness or the violence of humanity. I greatly appreciated how, even though the nightmares are said to create chaos and violent behavior, McKinney goes out of the way to have the narration establish that some people acted terribly of their own accord, and holds them accountable for their violent actions.
I did enjoy this book, but I have to say that I was discomforted by the implications of there being a relationship between the 17-year-old Alice and the hundreds of years old Addison. It’s creepy, full stop. If I had to say one thing that I disliked about the book, that relationship angle is definitively it. I would consider it fine if she just had a crush on him that eventually went away, considering that he is her mentor and saved her life and she looks up to him, so one might naturally form, but the minute that he reciprocates that becomes pedophilia and I am 100% not here for it. It’s also a love zig-zag, which I’m also not about, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that such things are often inevitable in YA, and all anything that includes romance really so I need to deal until I get around to writing my own books or I find books written by other like-minded folk. Speaking of romance, this book includes lesbians, which I am here for. The couple in question took me by surprise, as did a great deal in this book, which is full of twists and turns. Some of them were a tad predictable, simply because I know the source material and I know typical writing formulas. That said, I was taken by surprise by the ways in which this book was innovative and neatly avoided a few traps that I’ve seen other books fall into in years past.
One of my favorite moments in the book is a small one, when Alice gets called the “black Buffy” by her friend Courtney and her response is “Why can’t I just be Buffy?” I think I may have actually snapped my fingers in approval while on the train I was riding while reading this, but thankfully I didn’t get too many weird looks. I was very into Buffy when I was a teenager, and I would have loved to see an ass-kicking slayer with an afro on a book cover like A Blade So Black when I was sixteen.
Despite its faults, I loved this book, and you better believe I’ve got my eye on the sequel, A Dream So Dark (which comes out in September) because this book ends with a killer of a cliffhanger.