January 12, 2019

Review: A Blade So Black

A Blade So Black A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is an updated version of Alice in Wonderland, with a rather interesting worldbuilding conceit and an African-American protagonist. I'm glad it exists, because young black women need representation too, and let's face it, Lewis Carroll's original version was pretty squicky in places. But this book didn't knock my socks off, and there are a couple of reasons why.

First, the good. This version of Wonderland is based on a fascinating premise--it is humanity's collective unconscious, its dreams and nightmares, made flesh. The inhabitants literally depend on humans for their continued existence. Some of those inhabitants are spawned by and feed upon humanity's fears, and these Nightmares can, after a certain point, cross the barrier between Wonderland and our world. When that happens, only certain humans, called Dreamwalkers, can kill them permanently. Dreamwalkers like Alice.

Now, the not so good. Obviously this world owes a lot to Carroll's original, but it owes even more to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Alice is called a "black Buffy" by her best friend, Courtney, which is a rather startling bit of meta commentary.) In so doing, it reveals what I think has become a tiresome trope of teenage slayer-dom: the running conflict with a parent or guardian who doesn't know what the Slayer/Dreamwalker/whatever is doing. Alice's mother obviously loves her daughter, but the only glimpses we get of her are her fighting with Alice/grounding Alice/trying to rein Alice in, which gets repetitive and shallow after a while. Look, parents aren't dumb, and even Buffy's mother had to learn the truth eventually. (Not to mention the fact that between school, work and patrolling, Buffy and her descendants are awake pretty much 24/7, and their superpowers should be living without sleep rather than kickass superstrength.) In this case, with Alice being African-American, I think an opportunity was wasted. I would rather Alice's mother be let in on her secret, and the prime conflict, in addition to the Nightmares, instead be the unfortunate and sick reality of this nation: that of Walking, Working and Living While Black. I think this would have made for a better book.

Secondly, Alice herself is not a strong character, particularly in the first half of the story. Frankly, she whines, cries and reacts rather than acts, and it's only in the latter half of the book, when she steps up and begins taking charge, that she starts to get interesting. One could argue that this character arc is precisely what's supposed to happen, and maybe so, but it is not very well written. Throughout much of the book, Courtney, Addison Hatta and others are better written than the supposed protagonist, which is a problem. Alice's characterization does improve as the book goes along, but I would rather have an entire book with a well-realized main character, instead of half a book.

So this is just a so-so recommendation. As I said, I'm very glad this book has been published. I just wish it was better than it is.

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