The Looking Glass Wars
By Frank Beddor
2.25 / 5
With the amount of ‘good’ reviews this book was getting, I was expecting a much more eventful plot than I got. I had at first hesitated in getting this book simply because I didn’t like spin-offs of Alice in Wonderland as much anymore as there were just too many of them. Still, after an unsuccessful hunt through Dymocks for something readable, I found myself picking this book up and reading through the summary on the book jacket.
It didn’t say much on the back, but okay, I’ve heard this book mentioned a couple of times somewhere before. I hoped it wouldn’t be too bad–it claimed to be a darker, grittier version than the original, which is fine. I didn’t have large qualms with twisted fairytales. Perhaps this author would present a refreshing perspective on this tale.
I was wrong.
Let me give you the plot: parents murdered, princess escapes into our world, the son of Queen Victoria tries to marry her (what?), she comes back, grabs a ‘magical’ sceptre and tries to vanquish her mortal enemy – her aunt, the evil Redd. Sorry if I spoiled the read for any of you.
The fact is, everything was much too easy. Way too easy. And way too standard.The villain is Alyss (apparently the real version of her name) Heart’s aunt Redd, an exiled former heir to the throne of Wonderland. She is the scheming madwoman, spurned from her delusion of being the true heir to the Queendom (because Wonderland is ruled by Queens) and seeks to reclaim the throne for herself. First thing she does, as with any psychologically unstable villain, is to scream something so totally cliché, you might’ve decapitated yourself with your own sword to save her the trouble: “Off with their heads! Off with their stinking, boring heads!” she screams. Seriously. In many places, Redd is so awful an antagonist that she seems to be merely a child throwing a decades-long temper tantrum from not getting her way. Whenever plans go astray, this evil mistress (oops, “Her Imperial Viciousness”) uses ‘Black Imagination’–imagination powers being akin to telepathy and telekinesis–to rattle the drawers and bring various ornamental objects crashing to the ground. The forces in this book are so black and white, you can pick them apart blindfolded. It’s good against bad, right against wrong. There are simply no nuances in between, despite the author’s attempt to make “Alice in Wonderland” more ‘truthful’ and ‘realistic’.
This new Queen, after much rampage and the usurping of the throne, rules with complete brute force, surviving as ruler merely because she possesses imagination powers to be rivaled with (although there are a few nice touches here and there with the totalitarian society being described), yet is completely K.O.-ed by Alyss’s return. Alyss, being the main protagonist of the story, is also gifted with imagination powers beyond the norm. However, upon entering our world, loses them. When she does finally return to Wonderland after a thirteen-year hiatus, her powers flare up in no time. All she has to do is believe, meditate and concentrate, something her predecessors required years of tutelage under the wing of the reputable albino scholar, Bibwit Harte (an anagram for ‘White Rabbit’, or vice versa, depending on the way you look at it), to develop.
Another thing that I found annoying was the first scene involving the main pairing of the novel: Princess Alyss and her childhood best friend, Dodge Anders. Since the story starts off with Alyss being seven and Dodge being ten, one wouldn’t expect a long-lasting, heart-wrenching love to have already been in the midst of flourishing between them. But in fact, the characters act older than their years. Alyss and Dodge dance after the young to-be guardsman offers her a birthday present. As they waltz alone together in a room, Alyss asks Dodge to be her king. A little soon for that, no? But that isn’t what bothered me the most. What nagged me was the fact that Dodge was already a hormonal teenager way before his time:
‘He’d never touched the Princess before – not like this. She smelled of sweet earth and powder. It was a clean, delicate smell. Did all girls smell like this or only princesses?” And then later, “‘You know I’d protect you, Alyss.’ He felt warm all over and a little dizzy…He could feel her breath on his cheek. He was the luckiest boy in the Queendom…He didn’t want to let her go, but he did…”
What the hell?
I liked the fact that the romance in the latter half of the novel was drawn out so it was an undertone to the plot, but isn’t this a little early for unrequited love? I don’t make a habit of shipping seven-and-ten year old pairings.
The only characters worth watching were Hatter Madigan (aka Mad Hatter)–but what the hell was with the random brood of a ‘lost lover’ never before mentioned in the plot?–and Jack of Diamonds, who actually knows how to twist the whole situation to his advantage. While the rest of the cast weren’t complete disasters, they weren’t particularly memorable either.
I also didn’t quite understand the direction that this book was taking. The writing style is completely at odds with the later half of the novel, featuring a twenty-year old Alyss and older companions, but coupled with a less mature narration. The characters are older, sure, and the matters slightly more adult (too gory to be a kid’s book, too superficial to be an adult’s), but not deep enough to entrance older audiences into this fantastical realm. If you expect to find out more about the culture of this world and the politics behind the houses Diamond, Club, Spades, and ultimately, the Hearts, you will be sourly disappointed. There is no attempt to even stir up the reader’s imagination (ironically) on how Wonderland came to be. As a matter of fact, Wonderland sounds like your average fantasyland, complete with evil jabberwockies that breathe fire and a formidable assassin ‘The Cat’ that is repeatedly killed off by his mistress, the Queen Redd, because of misbehavior.
As for the book’s main selling point: the Looking Glass Maze that tests the future (rightful) ruler of the kingdom? A complete joke. Stuff we’ve all heard before. No difficulties for Alyss there.
The Looking Glass Wars is supposed to be a trilogy, but doubt resonates in my mind as to whether this series will truly make it. Hopefully, the author’s stance will have matured enough by the time the second and third books are published to rescue this retelling. I wouldn’t bet on it though.