L.L. McKinney’s A BLADE SO BLACK doesn’t waste time before running headlong into action in this exciting and inventive take on Alice in Wonderland. With an Alice who resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dark Angel’s Max Guevera more than any of the Alices we’ve gotten to know over the years, the opportunities for a wide array of emotions and character driven plot twists present themselves and are taken advantage of throughout the novel. The characters are nuanced and diverse in ethnicity, class, and personality. Alice is a Black teenager struggling to mourn her father and find common ground with her mother. Her friends, mentors, and the various Wonderland personalities surround her with moral support, friendship and romantic challenges, and role models of all kinds.
The first few chapters of the novel feel abrupt at times due to months and years-long jumps which seem intended to avoid the monotony as Alice hones her fighting skills. After Alice is first rescued from a monster and introduced to “the other side of town” by her mentor, Addison Hatta, we only get a brief taste of her new life before skipping to further action. At times the dialogue can also feel a little forced and uneven, but most of the time it rings true and helps move the plot forward effortlessly. Once Alice has been established in Wonderland, and events occur in more of a day-to-day pattern, readers will find the adventures engrossing, both in Wonderland and in Alice’s hometown of Atlanta. The second half of the novel flew by for me thanks to the dizzying array of characters and events.
One of the most effective aspects of A Blade So Black is the connection between the monsters Alice must fight and kill, which are created and fueled by human fears and nightmares, and real life tragedies and anxieties. The death of Alice’s father and her heart-wrenching response is the earliest example, but the senseless gunning down of a young woman in Alice’s neighborhood continues the thread both realistically and painfully. The underlying fears held by Alice, her mother, and the fumbling but well-meaning response of Alice’s best friend, who is white, to that tragic incident show Ms. McKinney’s ability to not just acknowledge real-life issues, but also draw them meaningfully into her fantasy novel.
I found the storyline entertaining and moving. Several high school scenes were relatable, as were some of the discussions between Alice and her mother. However, I was frustrated with some choices, like Alice’s repetitive cycle in her dealings with her mother. And why does she start calling Addison just Hatta? How did Chess become a best friend after a lifelong friendship between Alice and Courtney? I’d also have loved additional description of Wonderland itself and more detail about Alice’s cosplay hobby. Still, while some areas are left without satisfying development, there were lovely nuggets embedded in the story for readers to discover. My mind is racing with suspicions of why The Black Knight calls Alice “princess,” and how romantic interests will develop – or not.
The allusions to the original Alice in Wonderland are subtle, but recognizable. The Queens, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and even the Vorpal Sword all make appearances. The creativity with which McKinney massages and stretches the original tale is impressive, and it works. I also appreciate the matter-of-fact appearance of same-sex relationships and interracial (and inter-dimensional) relationships.
With a combination of salty language and topics highly relevant to teens, A Blade So Black will feel grown-up but accessible to its targeted age group (14-18). Highly recommended for anyone who loves adventure and fantasy. And good news! A second novel is already in the works with the title A Dream So Dark. We can only hope that a film adaptation is already being discussed because it would be amazing!