Christina Henry – Alice

I love Alice in Wonderland. Seeing its familiar characters used in different ways sounded really good. The only adaptation/retelling I’ve read so far was the less-than-stellar Looking Glass Wars. Christina Henry started out her horror version of Alice’s crazy adventures really well, only to lose steam along the way.

aliceALICE
by Christina Henry

Published by: Penguin, 2015
Ebook: 304 pages
Series: Alice #1
My rating: 5,5/10

First sentence: If she moved her head all the way up against the wall and tilted it to the left she could just see the edge of the moon through the bars.

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.
In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…
Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.
Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.
And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.

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Alice lives in a mental asylum with only her neighbour Hatcher for company, whom she talks to through a little mouse hole in the wall. When the asylum burns down, however, and the two escape into the city, their memories of a life prior to being locked up come back and reveal all the horrors of who they really are.

Christina Henry has a lot of talent for building up tension. Alice and Hatcher are both suffering amnesia in the beginning of the book, but snippets come back to them, leaving the reader intrigued (and shocked!) about their past. Alice’s story is not that hard to guess but its initial horror almost drowns in the filthy pit of evil that is the Old City and the inhabitants we meet along the journey to come.

This version of Wonderland – or this secondary world based on Wonderland – is separated into  New City and  Old City. New City is where rich people live, where Alice grew up and was declared insane and locked away. Old City is the dirty underbelly, where – and here’s a big, gigantic problem with this book – every single man is a rapist, murderer, thief, cannibal, torturer or some other terrible thing. Seriously, not a single person is just a normal human being. As for the ones who don’t get a chance to be evil, they are victims of the very men desribed above. In fact, Christina Henry’s focus (obsession?) on rape and torture goes so far that any shock value these scenes should have had, flies right out the window. Whenever Alice and Hatcher reach a new place, I came to expect it to be (A) littered with bodies, or (B) full of naked girls being raped or bought or sold or kept as slaves. Also – it’s only ever girls. Nobody trades with young men, apparently.

So yeah, I get it, this is meant to be a dark story. But the amount of blood, gore, and disgusting torture devices was just too much. If there is nothing to contrast the horror, and no time spent on showing some variety in the Old City’s inhabitants, then I’m left with the impression that it was put in there as gratuitous shock-material. None of it, however, holds any power because it is so obviously put in there only to be shocking. The plot would have worked much better if some of the evil gang lords of Old City weren’t so very evil, and so very obvious about it. They are not characters, they are stand-ins. Little bosses before you reach the end boss. With the one exception of Cheshire, all the baddies Alice and Hatcher have to defeat are so evil that our heroes don’t have to have any qualms or remorse about brutally murdering them. Why bother with questions of morality when everything is so wonderfully black and white. I do have to say that Cheshire was a ray of light in that you can’t ever be sure if he is good or evil, on Alice’s side or on that of some underground boss – or simply working for his own gain. He’s one of the reasons I kept on reading.

The second reason is Hatcher. As you may guess from the name, this is the Mad Hatter, named Hatcher because of his favored weapon. He was a multi-layered character with a sad past, fighting with bouts of insanity, battling against his hunger for killing. In Hatcher, Christina Henry actually shows off some of her talent. Unfortunately, she didn’t grant Alice that favor…

Another problem with this book was the pacing. It starts out so good! Thrown into the dark, I wanted to find out how this Wonderland works, who is who, where characters were hiding or what new role they have taken on. Christina Henry scatters her references beautifully, some very obvious, others more hidden, and it was a joy to discover them.  But what kept me reading was the threat of the Jabberwocky as well as an interest in Hatcher and his memories. There is so much build-up to every single revelation or boss fight (I’m just calling it that now) – and then the author just lets us down.

Alice and Hatcher travel a lot and their journeys from place A to place B take quite a while. The good thing is, this time is spent showing us more of their characters (mostly Hatcher), the bad thing is – if you make me read 50 pages of travelogue (interrupted by attempted rape and consecutive murder), then at least make the big fight worthwile. But every single time they reach a destination, they face their current opponent and you’d expect an intricately choreographed fight scene – or at least a clever bit of magic – then everything is over before you know it. Unspectacular, uninteresting, unoriginal.

Which all leads back to Alice being Alice. The fact that all the female characters in this book are either sex slaves, caged up, tortured, or dead, is bad enough. But the protagonist is the most passive creature in this story. Alice is dragged along by Hatcher (who is much more interesting, simply by merit of doing stuff), follows other people, does as she is told, and when she finally does act, it is by accident. Only in two scenes – I counted – does she do anything pro-active. And these scenes, you guessed it, take about three sentences to be over. Whoop-dee-do!

And then there comes the final, climactic moment of catharsis – when Alice gets to face her own torturer – and she STILL doesn’t do anything. After that, it’s time to meet the end boss and, hopefully defeat him. That’s the whole point of this story, after all. But the climax is no climax at all, the final fight isn’t a fight (not even a struggle), and the ending is as predictable as uninteresting.

I am really sad that a book that started out with so much potential drifted off into gratuitous grimdark territory, losing sight of its story and just going for gore and blood. I may give Christina Henry a second chance with the next book in this series but if that’s a mess as well, my patience is over. The only reason I finished this one is because Hatcher was an excellent character and the references to Alice in Wonderland were actually very well done.

MY RATING: 5,5/10 – Meh! Great beginning turned very sour.

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