Book Review: Alice by Christina Henry
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Genre: Fantasy, Horror
Series: Book 1/Stand Alone
Publisher: Ace (8/4/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
It recently occurred to me that over the years I’ve consumed a fair number of movies, games, comics, television shows etc. featuring retellings or re-imaginings of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – but never a novel. Huh. Suffice to say I was pretty shocked by this realization; after all, there are quite a few high-profile titles out there.
Christina Henry’s Alice therefore had the distinction of being my first “Alice retelling novel”, and I’m actually quite happy about that. Of the many different versions of Lewis Carroll’s classic that I have experienced, my favorite ones were typically those considered “dark” or “twisted” – and to be honest, those are the types I’m mostly interested in. There’s just something about the original tale that lends itself to the creepy or macabre treatment.
In any case, dark was what I wanted and dark was what I got. Henry’s retelling is definitely not for the faint of heart, and readers should also beware that themes of sexual violence and abuse feature heavily in this novel. This is Alice’s Adventures told through a horror lens, as vicious and sharp as a butcher’s knife wielded unflinchingly in your face, and all the whimsy and magical light-heartedness is warped here into a horrible nightmare of savagery and pain. If you enjoy close adaptations or would prefer to see the fanciful nature of the original story preserved, this book is not for you. But if, on the other hand, you know what you’ll be getting into and would like to see a refreshing new take on creative retellings, then this one could very well be right up your alley.
Alice begins with an introduction to our eponymous protagonist, a young woman who has spent the last ten years in a hospital ward for the insane along with the city’s other undesirables. She can’t remember the events that precipitated her imprisonment, and only knows what she’s been told – that as a girl she went missing, and then was later found again beaten and broken, one cheek slashed open and blood running down between her legs, gibbering nonsensically about “the Rabbit”. Now Alice finds herself mostly forgotten by the world, and her only friend is another prisoner called Hatcher, a multiple murderer who talks to her through a mouse hole in the wall connecting their cells.
One night, a fire breaks out in the hospital allowing Alice and Hatcher to escape, but the two of them are far from free. A shadowy monster known as the Jabberwocky is on the hunt, and it has their scent. The only way to be rid of the beast is to slay him with a magical blade, forcing Alice and Hatcher to seek it out in the heart of Old City where they will face monsters of a different sort – for this is where the magician crime lords rule, feeding off the fear and misery of the populace. Within their ranks are the men known as Cheshire, Caterpillar, the Walrus…and to Alice’s dismay, her old enemy the Rabbit.
As I was saying, if you like your Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland retellings dark and twisted, you’ve come to the right place. Christina Henry doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to filling her world with brutal violence and death. Her protagonists are troubled and broken people, haunted by traumatic pasts and memories. It’s not a happy book. And yet, beneath all the horror and disturbing themes, I’m impressed by the author’s sheer imagination and creativity. I like how she’s taken the familiar elements from the original story and reworked them into her version, making Alice one of the most unique retellings I’ve ever read.
Still, as much as I enjoyed this novel, I couldn’t help but feel like it was missing something vital. In spite of its relatively short length, Alice took me an inordinate amount of time to finish due to the numerous occasions where I got distracted or drifted off while reading. I liked the book a lot, but it just didn’t grip me the way it ought to have, even though the characters had purpose and the plot maintained a steady momentum. I wanted to stay connected but at times it was a struggle, almost like the darkness in the story was a massive black hole that sucked all life from its surroundings. To be clear though, it wasn’t the brutal nature of the story that affected me, but rather the hollowing effect it had on the characters. Both Alice and Hatcher felt distant to me, and whether or not this is by design, it had an impact on my experience.
Nevertheless, I’m still a fan. Alice is unconventional and rather fascinating in its uniqueness. This book is certainly not for everyone, but I can see it scoring a hit with readers who enjoy strange and dark retellings. Themes like sexual abuse and psychological trauma makes this one a disturbing read, but I feel they are handled with a complexity that’s not just there for shock value and cheap thrills. While Alice features a self-contained story, the end does leaves things somewhat open for a future installment. If that’s the case, I definitely wouldn’t mind reading more!