Alice by Christina Henry
(Ace Books, Paperback, 291 Pages, ISBN: 9780425266793)
“Her voice trailed off, her throat full of love and loss and pain. [He] said nothing, but she heard his breath go deep and even, and she let her eyes fall shut. She matched her breath to his, and it was almost like holding his hand as the night closed in.
Alice dreamed of blood. Blood on her hands and under her feet, blood in her mouth and pouring from her eyes. The room was filled with it. Outside the door [he] stood hand in hand with something dark and hideous, a thing crafted of shadow with flashing silver teeth…”
I haven’t read Lewis Carroll before. I’ve never even watched any of the Alice in Wonderland adaptations that have been animated or filmed. But the continual presence of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in the popular zeitgeist is sufficient familiarity for anyone to pick up Alice, an arresting novel by Christina Henry published last summer. More inspired by Carroll’s twisted characters and their world as opposed to being a point-by-point ‘retelling’, Christina Henry tweaks Carroll’s work into her own distinct plot and themes, with a marked shift to darkness.
And as the cover to the book illustrates, oh yes, this is dark – filled with traumas physical and psychological alike. Yet, Henry also manages to end Alice with a sense of hope and, above all, a strong resilience that shines in her characters. Ultimately the novel is a story about surviving and overcoming trauma, setting the characters up for further challenges and self-discovery in Red Queen, the follow-up novel due out next month.
Within a hospital asylum in The Old City, a young woman named Alice endures the uncertainty of who she exactly is — or how she has gotten to be locked up. Her few memories haunt her: parents long gone, a horrific tea party, blood, and the ears of a deranged man known as the Rabbit. In an adjacent cell is an equally psychologically damaged murderer named Hatcher, Alice’s only refuge from disintegration into her own scarred thoughts. When fire breaks out in the asylum, setting Alice and Hatcher free into the city underworld, they set out together in search of the demons of their past, and discover wild powers thought long-lost.
While confronting the elite agents of power and criminality that rule the streets (gangsters with nicknames taken from Carroll), Hatcher and Alice chase their pasts, while also seeking a way to stop the monster that has escaped from the asylum along with them, the Jabberwock.
“I feel the night crawling up all around, blotting out the moon. I feel blood running down the walls, rivers of it in the streets below. And I feel his teeth closing around me. That’s what he’ll do, Alice, if he’s ever set free…”
Alice carries a Victorian-era urban fantasy vibe that in its darkest moments becomes horrific — not frightening per se, but certainly intense. In particular, there are passages of intensified violence and scenes involving rape. At first I questioned how these aspects were included, particularly with the prevalence of female characters, most obviously Alice herself. However, I quickly realized that all of the characters here are badly damaged, male and female alike, and what became important was not the damage itself, but what the characters were doing with it and what they would become.
The relationship between Hatcher and Alice functions particularly well and with tremendous depth in terms of realistically moving on from damage. Their broken emotional state makes it difficult for you to know how accurate their perceptions of reality really are. And with Hatcher you can never be sure how honest his intentions really are.
Although both fragmented, Alice and Hatcher each support one another in their own unique ways. Yet, rather than strict co-dependence, they instead end up encouraging each other’s individual development. For instance, Alice clearly looks to Hatcher as a strong male protector. Yet Hatcher’s emotional fragility and inclination toward fits of violent anger also make him a danger and liability. In those moments, it is Alice who must take control and save him through her own strength of intellect. Together, they limp through bruises to regain themselves.
Alice’s plot sets this process of discovery within contexts of social power dynamics and, with its consistently dark tone, focuses on vengeance, a lust to punish the parties responsible for giving the characters their pain. Readers able to handle this flavor of emotional intensity will find a richness and creepy beauty to Alice. Based solely on early reviews, Red Queen is particularly lighter in tone, meaning that Henry is using this form of ‘grim dark’ for the sure purpose of taking the broader story of this The Chronicles of Alice series in meaningful directions of evolution.