Amulet Books, $17.95 hardcover, ISBN-10 1419704281, January 1, 2013
Alyssa Gardner hears the whispers of bugs and flowers—precisely the affliction that landed her mother in a mental hospital years before. This family curse stretches back to her ancestor Alice Liddell, the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alyssa might be crazy, but she manages to keep it together. For now. When her mother’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, Alyssa learns that what she thought was fiction is based in terrifying reality. The real Wonderland is a place far darker and more twisted than Lewis Carroll ever let on. There, Alyssa must pass a series of tests, including draining an ocean of Alice’s tears, waking the slumbering tea party, and subduing a vicious bandersnatch, to fix Alice’s mistakes and save her family. She must also decide whom to trust: Jeb, her gorgeous best friend and secret crush, or the sexy but suspicious Morpheus, her guide through Wonderland, who may have dark motives of his own.
First of all, don’t let the pretty cover fool you. Apart from the antic, too-bright expression on the girl’s face, it doesn’t accurately represent the madcap corkscrew of a world Howard builds here. To fully understand all of the allusions, you do need to have read the original Alice books or at least have seen one of the older movie versions, not the almost-successful Tim Burton picture.
Scrappy, innocent Alyssa is horrified when her father approves electroshock therapy for her mentally ill mother. After a lifetime of believing her mother is mentally ill, she’s realized that the voices both of them hear from bugs and flowers aren’t hallucinations. Her only choice is to break through the looking glass into Wonderland, but it’s not the silly place her ancestor Alice Liddell described to Lewis Carroll. The White Rabbit, for example, is really a rabid creature called White who’s devoid of all flesh save his face. Dinner parties consist of a race to catch live food that tears off parts of itself to egg the guests into a feeding frenzy. And the Caterpillar, now past his metamorphosis, is a sensual, secretive, and dangerous creature who looks a little like The Crow and shares a past with Alyssa. He says he wants to help her undo Alice’s mistakes and break the curse on her family, but he clearly has his own motives, whatever they might be. Worse, her close friend and somewhat-secret crush Jeb got dragged through the looking glass with her, and now Alyssa isn’t sure she can keep him safe from jealous Morpheus or the other mad and dangerous Wonderland denizens.
While Carroll’s Wonderland skewered Victorian society from behind a veil of nonsense, Howard’s version is a more introverted experience. As she travels, Alyssa confronts the essence of adolescence: innocence versus experience, desire versus inhibition, want versus moral compass. Vivid, grotesque, and occasionally chilling, this dark fantasy brings the vague layer of menace underlying the original Wonderland to the surface with startling effect. The imaginative revisions of familiar settings and characters will fascinate readers as Alyssa struggles to decide whether Morpheus holds the key to saving Underland and her mother, or destroying everything she loves.
Alyssa is a prickly but good-hearted heroine, and Howard creates an interesting good boy/bad boy romantic triangle that, while certainly not unique, provides nice tension without becoming annoying. While this book reads like a standalone, Howard does a leave a slight opening for a possible sequel that adds some uncertainty to Alyssa’s ultimate choice.
To buy or not to buy: BUY! Might I add that this book is an excellent tie-in with this year’s SRP theme?
Recommend to: Fans of the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland movie, fans of the original Lewis Carroll books, fantasy fans, horror fans, anyone who enjoyed Clive Barker’s Abarat