A Dream So Dark, L.L. McKinney (Imprint 978-1-250-15392-0, $18.99, 416pp, hc) September 2019.
L.L. McKinney picks up the action right where she left off with her new “all hands on deck” sequel to A Blade So Black, A Dream So Dark. After losing one of her closest friends and discovering a major secret about her mentor in the closing pages of A Blade So Black, McKinney’s protagonist, Alice, is faced with a series of events that can barely be contained in this new book. Wonderland’s issues are too big for their world and they spill over with increasing frequency into Alice’s hometown of Atlanta. Can the Black Knight be stopped? Will the good guys discover who set him on his murderous path? Will the Nightmares continue to threaten Alice’s family and friends? And are the denizens of Wonderland keeping any more secrets from her, even though she is doing her best to save both their world and ours?
If you haven’t read A Blade So Black, then most of that first paragraph will make no sense. These new adventures of Wonderland that McKinney is writing must be read in order, as hers is a narrative that builds on what came before. The Alice of A Dream So Dark is not the naive teen that spent much of the previous book in an understandable state of shock. Now she is ready to dig deep and bring on a battle of her own when something threatening comes out of the dark. If a monster shows up in her hallway, well, the fight is going to be epic. Alice knows how high the stakes are and that none of it is a fantasy. She is becoming a warrior and, as such, she is a lot less willing to take the crap that the bad guys insist on dishing out.
There are many confrontations in A Dream So Dark, a vicious villain, and a lot of Nightmares. Things are not as they seem, nor are people. McKinney introduces some great new characters, especially from Japan, as more of the interconnecting map between Wonderland and our world is revealed. She also relieves a great deal of the previous pressure in Alice’s relationship with her mother, freeing readers from a storyline too dependent upon the superhero having to hide her superhero-ness from her parent. (We are all familiar with Peter Parker and Buffy Summers and all the pretending of heroes like them. Thankfully Alice is not left interminably in that same morass.)
Beyond the specifics of A Dream So Dark‘s plot, what I love about McKinney’s books is the truly exemplary worldbuilding and how much fun the author has with the Wonderland mythos. She peppers her narratives with literary Easter eggs, some obvious and some obscure, referencing all manner of Wonderlandalia. This is an author who relishes her intimacy with Lewis Carroll’s work and infuses it with a modern spin. Readers eagerly turn the pages looking for what new and wondrous thing she will do with the classic; I honestly can’t wait to see what comes next.
My only complaint is the romance between Alice and her mentor, Addison Hatta. It feels a bit like an afterthought, the plot point that is necessary because, well, in teen titles it usually is there. The greater heat from Hatta in A Dream So Dark actually involves a surprising old flame, though overall, he seems more preoccupied with battles than love. Readers who arrive for the novel’s action will find the romance to be an unnecessary distraction, and those looking for romance will likely be disappointed at the couple’s lack of chemistry. This is a fine point in what is proving to be a wonderful series; it stands out to me perhaps because McKinney does everything else so well. I truly believe that this Alice, this smart and thoughtful and soulful Alice, is the one we have all been waiting for. She might finally save Wonderland from itself, and at the same time, she will save many of the rest of us as well.
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 December 2019 issue of Locus.
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