I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Alice by Christina Henry
Published by Ace on August 4 2015
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
Format: ARC, Finished paperback
Buy on Amazon
The nitty-gritty: A dark (very dark) and violent (very violent) trip through a deranged landscape with the characters of Alice In Wonderland. Except in this book, you may not recognize them…
Cake. She was thinking of cake, the soft crumbly sweetness of it on her tongue. She had not eaten cake for years. There certainly was no cake at the hospital, only thin grey gruel, thin as the faces that delivered it morning and night.
There used to be cake with tea, before the hospital. A plate piled high with fat wedges of yellow cake with different icings—pink and blue and violet. Her mother would pour out the tea and then Alice would be permitted to choose one small slice, only one, for her mother did not approve of sweets.
I have to admit this is one of those books where I wasn’t sure how I was going to rate it until the very last page. Early on, I had issues with the story, and I thought it was going to get a lower rating. But by the end I changed my mind, and Henry’s odd and disquieting take on Alice in Wonderland managed to get under my skin. And if you’re thinking that sounds painful, well actually, it was. This story will not be for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s upsetting and bloody and depressing, and while all that may sound like a good reason not to read this book, I actually did end up loving it, for its originality and terrible beauty and gorgeous writing. The Alice of this story grows in leaps and bounds by the end, which made me cheer for her. I do find it strange that of all the characters in Alice, I only really liked a handful of them, Alice being one, and the rest just happen to be giant animals (a white rabbit and a family of giant rats!).
All of the players you’re familiar with are present in this story, with a twist. Alice has been locked in an insane asylum for the past ten years, after a violent incident that she can’t fully remember. She has only snippets of memories of a tea party, and being forced to eat cake, stabbing a Rabbit in the eye, and running away. Her only friend is a man named Hatcher in the next cell. Alice and Hatcher communicate through a mouse-hole, and so the only parts of Hatcher that Alice has ever seen are his face and beard. Until one night, a fire breaks out in the asylum, and Hatcher helps Alice escape. They wind up in Old City, a dark and dank place split up into factions ruled by cruel crime lords, where danger lurks around every corner. But something even more menacing is on the loose: a creature called the Jabberwocky.
Alice and Hatcher set out on a perilous journey to try to stop him, but along the way they must face some old foes from their pasts. And as Alice’s memory slowly starts to return, she knows can’t rest until she confronts the person she escaped from long ago: the Rabbit.
Christina Henry’s writing is so well suited to this story, or perhaps she just adopted the right voice for telling an Alice in Wonderland tale. This is the only book of hers I’ve read, so I don’t know if this is her “normal” voice. But whatever she’s done, it works. Her writing is spare and to the point, and there isn’t a wasted word anywhere in the book. And she’s definitely got the spirit of the weirdness of Alice in Wonderland down pat and added some very modern updates that make it feel off kilter. On the one hand, this is clearly a fantasy world where magic is real. But as we are introduced to Cheshire, the Caterpillar, the Walrus and the Rabbit, I began to feel as if I were in an episode of The Sopranos. Each character “owns” a part of the city and defends his territory with violence and bloodshed, and it is through these mean streets that Alice and Hatcher must navigate in order to find the Rabbit, who holds the key to defeating the Jabberwocky.
The hardest part of this story for me—and I’m sure this will be hard for many readers—is the way women are depicted as victims. The story is full of powerful men who use women as sex slaves, keeping them captive and physically abusing them. One of the more disturbing scenes takes place when Alice and Hatcher make their way to the Caterpillar’s club called Butterflies, where women are forced to wear butterfly wings and dance naked for male patrons (and that’s not even the worst part). Throughout the story, there’s a feeling of dread every time the Walrus’s name is mentioned, a hulking man who is rumored to eat young girls. But even worse was the way the female characters felt about themselves. They seemed to almost accept the fact that their lot in life is to be used by men and then discarded, or even killed.
Even though Hatcher is seen as Alice’s rescuer, an odd character who wields an ax and has no problem using it against anyone who gets in their way, I didn’t like him very much. His violent temper scared the pants off me, and I honestly couldn’t understand what Alice saw in him. Alice just assumes she and Hatcher will end up as a couple, and I found it sad that she couldn’t see beyond him, and envision a life where she can stand on her own. As Alice’s memories of the Rabbit start to trickle back in, she proclaims “I don’t want him to own me again.” And then Hatcher says something like, “Don’t worry, Alice. You’re mine.” (or words to that effect) I just wanted to smack him, and then I wanted to smack Alive for feeling like she has to “belong” to any man.
Near the end of the story, however, Alice finally steps up and realizes she has her own powers, her own way of dealing with the situation, and she actually doesn’t need help at all. I was so relieved with this side of her character, that my final rating went up at that moment!
But despite the grim storyline, Alice has sparks of beauty and magic to keep it from tumbling into too deep a pit of despair. Alice’s gentle and trusting nature created some lovely moments, especially the scene with a terribly abused rabbit named Pipkin, who has been given a potion to make him human-sized. Alice not only helps him seek vengeance with the man who abused him, but she also helps him escape his prison. But even with moments like these, Henry wields a double-edged sword, because vengeance, while sweet, is also soaked in blood.
Unsettling, dark and twisted, Alice is best appreciated by a discerning reader who isn’t afraid to venture into the unfamiliar.
Big thanks to the publisher and Ace Roc Stars for supplying a review copy.