Review: Chronicles of Alice series
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Alice, Red Queen, and Looking Glass, by Christina Henry (2015, 2016, 2020)
Describe Alice in 140 characters or less.
Christina Henry: "This is not Wonderland."
First off, I want to make sure this trigger warning is front and center, because as much as I really loved this series, there are also a lot of references to rape and other sexual abuse - both blatant and implied - and a lot of graphic violence (these are not children's books). What I will say is that, for me, the violence didn't feel gratuitous, as if it was just there for shock value. Henry creates a very specific, very dark world, where the kinds of things happening (mainly to women) are horrible... but that's the point. It's the cruel reality of the world that Alice, along with other main characters, are stuck in, and the heartless nature of that world is what makes their triumphs gratifying. Still, it's a bit much. Were it not for that, I might have given these books a 5 star rating. So, use your judgement to decide if these books are for you.
And with that... Oh man, I did enjoy these books! Obviously they are based on Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They are delightfully odd and extremely clever and creative, in the same way the original stories are, but much more dark and disturbing.
In trying to think how to describe it... what I've come up with is: Imagine all of your most memorable, scary nightmares, but they're actually true somewhere. And that reality is populated by terrifying versions of all the creepy, crazy creatures of Alice in Wonderland. "The Rabbit" is now the nickname of a sadistic mob-boss-esque murderer who conspires to lure Alice away from her home in the "New City," taking her into the "Old City" - a grimy, dank, smelly place - to imprison, torture, and sell her. The Walrus, the Carpenter, the Caterpillar, and Cheshire are rival overlords in the city, who vie for power and influence by brutal means. When Alice manages to get free of the Rabbit and return home, bloodied and incoherent, her parents place her in an insane asylum. There she befriends Hatcher (the Mad Hatcher, if you will). Both have lost their memories, but have nightmares that offer hints about their violent pasts.
When a fire at the asylum offers an opportunity for escape, Alice & Hatcher make their way deep into the Old City, seeking out painful truths about what happened to each of them while facing down the city's bosses, as well as the mysterious Jabberwocky, who leaves behind him a trail of death and destruction. Slowly, they regain their memories, as well as start to connect the dots between the strange happenings in the city, and the Magicians who were supposedly run out of the city long ago. In fact, many are still hiding in plain site, and Alice & Hatcher discover they both have profound connections to magic.
The second and third books continue to follow Alice & Hatcher as they make their way out of the Old City, traversing woods and mountains, and meeting new monsters and magicians. These books are much less violent, though the outskirts of the city are not without their horrors.
One of the things I really loved about the series is how Henry plays with time. Sometimes the events here seem like they're happening AFTER the Carroll books:
"You'd better start believing in the impossible, Alice, for the impossible will keep happening," she said, and she had a vague memory of saying this once before, except that it hadn't stuck that time.
Alice thought she heard a voice, very far away, almost like an echo of a memory in the far distant past, or maybe something that was only imagined. Off ... with ... her ... head.
And then there are times when it seems like they happened BEFORE the Carroll books - Carroll having seemingly taken vicious events and turned them into an amusing fairytale (akin to the way Grimm's tales were Disney-ified):
Would someone tell the story of Alice & Hatcher one day, and how they defeated the Jabberwocky and the White Queen? Would the story grow sweeter in the telling, and the blood drained away from it, and Alice & Hatcher become heroes? Alice hoped not. That wasn't the story she'd lived. If the story wasn't to be told properly then it shouldn't be told at all.
And still there are other moments when Henry's version just appears to be a retelling - not before or after or during, just an entirely different story with some similar characters. For me, it was fun to have these hints of a muddled timeline, as it felt very in keeping with the original story's wackiness.
Henry has other fairytale-inspired novels that I'm looking forward to checking out:
Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook (about Barrie's Peter Pan, obviously)
The Girl in Red (about Little Red Riding Hood)
The Mermaid (about a mermaid who finds herself in P.T. Barnum's museum)
In the meantime, a final thought from Alice & Hatcher:
“The world gobbles us and chews us and swallows us,” Hatcher said, in that uncanny way he had of reading her thoughts. “I think happy endings must be accidents.”
“But we hope for them all the same,” Alice said.
UP NEXT: Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew Sullivan