Book/Author and Year Published: A Blade So Black by L.L McKinney (2018)
Age/Genre: YA Fantasy
Preferred Reading Environment: At a sleepover with your best friends.
Reading Accoutrements: A cup of tea, of course! (But maybe not if it says “Drink Me”)
Content Notes: Parental Death, Police Killings
I found out about A Blade So Black when I saw the cover for the book on Twitter. It looked badass, and when the description promised “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Alice in Wonderland,” I was sold. I needed a break from all the politics and stream-of-consciousness in the other books I’ve read this month, so this was the perfect choice for my next read.
A Blade so Black follows Alice, a seventeen-year-old girl in modern day Atlanta. On the day her dad dies, she runs into a monster in an alley and is saved by a curious man named Addison Hatta. Hatta then trains Alice to fight monsters called nightmares, which are apparitions from Wonderland and created by human dreams and thoughts. The nightmares mostly stay in Wonderland, but sometimes attempt to cross the barrier between the two worlds. If they reach our world, they wreak havoc. Alice makes regular trips into Wonderland in order to destroy these monsters before they can cross. Only humans can kill the monsters, since they are made from human thoughts. Hatta is not human, but a Wonderlandian. His home base is a bar called The Looking Glass, where Maddie, a fellow Wonderlandian, cooks up potions (made out of poetry?) to help fight the monsters and heal injuries.
Of course, in addition to fighting monsters, Alice is also a teenage girl. She tries to help her mom as much as she can in the aftermath of her dad’s death. She still has to go to school and follow her mom’s rules, all while battling creatures from another world. Of course, this doesn’t work out too well, and Alice ends up grounded a lot for sneaking out and not keeping her mom up-to-date on her whereabouts. This definitely got a little old for me, and there was a moment at the end that I thought would have been a great opportunity for Alice’s mom to discover the truth. Hopefully that can happen in a future book. Because, of course, this is not a standalone novel.
A Blade So Black is firmly YA, from the conflicts it deals with to how love stories are engaged. Alice has two possible love interests in the book, and neither really performs any meaningful function toward the plot or Alice’s character development. I really wish the love interest angle had been left out completely, but it’s not harmful or obnoxious, it just seemed unnecessary.
When I say the conflicts are appropriate for YA, that is not to say that adults cannot get satisfaction from this book. It just addresses issues from the perspective of teenagers, so it’s FOR teenagers, not adults. Adults will see more facets of the roots of the problem than most teenagers will. Alice constantly blames herself for everything going wrong around her, and it really affects her self-esteem. The problems she deals with are hard issues for anyone – mainly the death of a parent, and a single mom who’s extremely worried about her daughter in the aftermath of a police shooting of a teenager.
I really loved how McKinney incorporated the stresses of current events into this novel. This is not a political book. We see how traumatic events affect communities and people in them. We don’t get any political speculation on the teenagers’ death – we only see how it affects her community. Both Alice and her mom take the death personally even though they didn’t know the girl or her family, because they know something similar could happen to Alice at any time. This also causes Alice to feel guilty for putting her life in danger in Wonderland, as she knows her mom would be devastated if anything ever happened to her.
I loved how people’s interactions are portrayed in the writing. We see people deal with conflict in mature, considerate ways. We also see people make mistakes and own up to them. This doesn’t prevent the characters from making bad decisions or lead to them being unrealistically self-aware though. When Alice’s mom is upset with her, she does show her anger, and Alice does get punished. But her mom ends every conversation with “I love you,” and she explains the reasons for her rules. I thought this showed great, healthy parenting, where kids are treated as full-fledged human beings, not their parents’ servants or emotional deposits.
There were things I didn’t love about this book. I thought some of the Wonderland references seemed pretty self-congratulatory. But that’s not super uncommon for fairytale reimaginings. Sure, I rolled my eyes that Alice’s cats’ names were Lewis and Carroll, but it didn’t detract from the overall story. At this point in my life, YA fairytale retellings aren’t really my jam. If I had read this in high school, or even a few years ago when I was into Once Upon a Time, I would have absolutely adored this novel. As it is, I think it did a lot of things super well, but I know I’m not really the target audience, and I had a few qualms. I do think that this would be great for teenagers, and anyone who loves fairytale retellings. I also plan on reading the upcoming sequel, A Dream so Dark, when it comes out later this year.
What’s a book that you thought was really good for what it was, but wasn’t really your preferred style?