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Review: A Blade so Black by L.L. McKinney

Review: A Blade so Black by L.L. McKinney

‘The first time the Nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she’s trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.

Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job. But when Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.’

I love a good retelling and A Blade so Black is one of my favourites of recent years. After being attacked by a Nightmare from Wonderland, Alice is recruited to become a Dreamwalker and instructed in the use of magical weapons called Figment Blades and close combat. It’s her job to keep the Nightmares at bay and in check following a war that has had awful consequences for both the people of Wonderland and the human world.

What I loved most about Alice is that she reads like a real person. She may be drawn into a fantasy world and find herself with superhuman powers, but this doesn’t distance her voice from the reader or alter her behaviour to the extent that she is more powers than person. You see bits and pieces from her life, such as her love of Sailor Moon and ability to sew her own cosplay outfits, her relationships with her friends, and moments from her past that continue to impact her alongside the devastating events that impact her community, balanced alongside the time she spends in Wonderland living a different life. Wonderland is an important part of who she is, yet being a Dreamwalker does not define her absolutely and does not absorb her storyline so completely that she is less character than concept. Alice is a vibrant young woman whose dialogue is easy to ‘hear’, aiding the process of connecting with her early in the novel.

Though there is often not a huge amount of description regarding surroundings, this allows for the story to maintain a quick pace, with events driven by characters and the narrative not weighed down by pages of unnecessary detail. There are several instances of exposition, often in dialogue or as Alice performs a particular task in Wonderland, but these do not feel awkward or distracting, given as it’s just enough information to understand the mechanics of the world that is shared. These tales of Wonderland and the details, such as the use of mirrors and ‘verses’, are often what make the story light up the most and are another of the elements that had me get through the book so fast.

Twists on characters and facets of the original Alice in Wonderland story are woven into the novel in a fresh and interesting manner that makes them immediately recognisable, yet doesn’t make the narrative predictable for their appearance. It may be influenced by the original text, but the story is McKinney’s own and a thoroughly modern piece. It’s easy to get reeled in by Alice’s world (or should I say worlds) and a little jarring to have to leave it at the novel’s conclusion.

Thank you to Titan Books for the copy of A Blade so Black!

Publisher: Titan Books

Pub date: 25th September 2018