Turns out Lewis Carroll got it hopelessly wrong. Far from being a world of largely innocuous marvels, Wonderland is in fact a realm filled with deadly intrigue, something that Alice Liddell knows all too well. For seven years she was Alyss Heart, daughter of Queen Genevieve and King Nolan, heir to the Wonderland throne, about to begin her training to become a warrior queen. Until her evil Aunt Redd storms the palace accompanied by her card soldiers and her most feared assassin - The Cat - after ambushing the king on his return from Outerwildebeastia. Alyss escapes thanks to her mother’s bodyguard, Hatter Madigan, who takes her to the Pool of Tears, a seemingly one-way exit from Wonderland. After they become separated Alyss survives on the London streets while Madigan searches for her among the hatters of the world. Adopted by the Liddells, Alyss’s tales of Wonderland are mocked and criticised, and her one listener transforms her homeland into a mere fairytale. Hurt, she abandons all thought of her old life and concentrates on becoming dutiful Alice.
Back in Wonderland, Queen Redd and her fellow practitioners of Black Imagination run a totalitarian state while the card soldiers track down the rebels. Led by General Doppelgänger - who can divide at will into Generals Doppel and Gänger - the Alyssians don’t believe that the lost princess will ever return, but fight on nonetheless. Among them is Alyss’s old friend Dodge Anders, who now feels nothing but the thrill of danger and lives only to take revenge for his father’s death: to rob The Cat of every last one of his remaining lives. When Redd discovers that her assassin lied to save his lives, and that Alyss escaped, she sends a team through the Pool to kill her. Rescued by Madigan, Alyss makes an abrupt entrance into a world she has long convinced herself she’d invented. Accustomed to the ways of our world, she faces a steep learning curve if she is to unlock the power of her imagination and find her way through the Looking Glass Maze, the final challenge awaiting those who would be the true queen of Wonderland.
I love new takes on old tales, and this one made me really wish I’d read Jabberwocky and Through the Looking-Glass as well as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the better to appreciate the re-imagining. Though there was plenty to spot as it was, including caterpillars as oracles and a toweringly tall albino tutor named Bibwit Harte (an anagram, of course, of ‘white rabbit’). The story pulled me right in and I had no trouble picturing Wonderland as a somewhat bloodthirsty place. And I loved that the characters used Wonderland similes, like when Dodge escaped from some of Redd’s robots by jumping into the Crystal Continuum via a fragment of mirror no larger than a jabberwock’s toe. I thought at first that Dodge was a weird name, but there was good reason; Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) took it as a reference to himself and proof that Wonderland was all in Alice’s head.
This book was more about inventiveness and action than character, but once I was happily ensconced in the new Wonderland I was too enthralled to care. Apparently it will be the start of a series and I’ll definitely be reading the rest; to see what other aspects of Carroll’s tales can get turned on their heads and to find out what happens next. There was - thankfully - no too-obvious set-up for the next book at the end of this one, but I do have a bunch of questions. Did or did not Redd and The Cat end up in a position to cause more trouble? How will Alyss deal with the scheming suit families (Clubs, Diamonds, and Spades) and especially Jack of Diamonds, Wonderland’s intended future king and possessor of the biggest backside in the queendom? Why does Hatter Madigan’s young protégé Homburg Molly handle weaponry like a full member of the Millinery when she’s only a half-breed? Will Alyss marry Dodge? (I do hope so.) And just what are those caterpillars smoking?