A Blade So Black, L.L. McKinney (Macmillan/Imprint 978-1-250-15390-6 $18.99, 352pp, tp) September 2018.
Author L.L. McKinney is not coy about what she has to offer with her debut novel A Blade So Black. The protagonist is named Alice, her mentor is named Addison Hatta (a “punk Prince Charming” who strolls onto the page in a t-shirt reading “We’re All Mad Here”), and a couple of her pals are a snarky set of Russian twins with the last name of Tweedlanov. As the back cover declares, “This is not the Wonderland you remember,” but it’s plenty cause for YA fans to rejoice as they thrill to this gritty update on the classic.
Seventeen-year old Alice nearly dies in the book’s opening pages, as she is attacked by a monster outside the hospital while grieving her father’s death. Saved by Hatta, she quickly becomes his student and learns about Wonderland, the monster-like Nightmares who cross the “Veil” between the two worlds, and embraces the difficult job of Dreamwalker, a human who slays Nightmares. In rapid order, Alice finds herself juggling life as average high school student and being a good daughter to her highly suspicious and protective mother, while also “working” at Looking Glass Pub for Hatta and his healer/bartender Maddi. (FYI: Maddi is pretty much the best rendition of the Dormouse ever written. Absolutely bloody brilliant!) Then a mission to Wonderland goes awry, Alice is nearly killed, the Black Knight resurfaces with the Vorpal Sword, the White Queen is in peril and Hatta is fighting for his life.
We are not even halfway through the book.
In terms of breakneck plot and action, McKinney covers every conceivable base; in fact, my only complaint is that things happen so hard and fast in the first few chapters (along with a couple of rapid time jumps), that readers are left longing for some character development. But once the main plot thread unfolds and the Black Knight is established as the villain, the author slows things down just enough for all the supporting characters to establish themselves. It is still unfortunate that Alice’s mother seems to exist solely to thwart her daughter’s heroic activities (echoes of Joyce Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer are heavy here), but McKinney is clearly laying down a ton of detail to fuel not only this book but the next (there’s a humdinger of a cliffhanger). More importantly, she does a great job once the plot takes off, including the drop of an EPIC twist, and it’s best just to hold on tight as Alice whirls her way through one shock after another. She is such a great Alice, a complicated, fed-up, determined and dedicated modern heroine, that she carries readers along with ease over any rough spots in the racing plot. And as more characters appear, the story just gets better, until the last page turns and all the possibilities of what might come next are presented.
Finally, McKinney’s bold and brave Alice is African-American, providing a long overdue addition to the Alice canon. That she appears in a book with so many appealing twists on the original characters (I cannot wait to see who McKinney creates next!) is so wonderful that it is hard not to focus all of my reviewing attention on her presence alone. This is an Alice with a lot of staying power and A Blade So Black is a novel that roars mightily in the face of all those Wonderland tales that have come before. L.L. McKinney is on her way to someplace special with this debut; get onboard now and enjoy the splendid ride.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the October 2018 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.