Falling Down the Rabbit Hole: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

The night Alice’s father died in the hospital, Alice nearly died in a nearby alley. A Nightmare, a monstrous creature forged from human fears, would have killed her quickly and painfully had it not been for Addison Hatta and his too-sharp blades. He introduces her to Wonderland, a portal world full of magic and sadness. Nightmares come through Wonderland to our world, but because they’re created by humans only a human can kill them. Alice is one of those select humans. He offers to teach her, if she’s willing…

A few years later, Alice is at the top of her game. She dispatches Nightmares if not with ease than at least with some confidence. But between high school, her mom, and saving the world, it’s all getting to be a bit too much. Retirement sounds awfully appealing. Her dreams of hanging up her daggers are quashed when a mysterious villain begins sending Nightmares after Alice. The wicked Knight pushes Alice around like a pawn on a chessboard. Hatta keeping some Very Important Secrets from her isn’t helping matters. As Wonderland’s darkness begins to spread into the real world, Alice will have to risk her friendships, her mother’s trust, and even her life to save the day.

Of A Blade So Black, many comparisons have been made between Alice and Buffy Summers, and yeah, I can see that. There are certainly similarities between the show and the book—Alice as the Chosen One, Hatta as Angel, Courtney and Chess as Willow and Xander, Maddi maybe sorta as Giles, Figment Blades and Mr. Pointy, etc.—but where the comparison really hits home is between Alice and Buffy as teen girls. Buffy is all about action, romance, and saving the world, but Buffy is a complicated, exhausted, frustrated, strong-willed, clever, big-hearted young woman with the world on her shoulders and a chip to match. She isn’t perfect. She stumbles and makes mistakes. For much of season six she even suffers from PTSD.

Alice hasn’t gone quite that far yet, but if she doesn’t retire like she wants to and keeps fighting Nightmares, she just might. What made Buffy (and therefore Buffy) so great was that she wasn’t just the Chosen One but a real woman with relatable problems and honest emotions. Same goes for Alice. Everyone thinks she’s a superhero, but Alice knows she’s really a girl with a whole lot going on.

When I reviewed Justina Ireland’s incredible Dread Nation, I talked about how the book could be read in three different ways: as a fun, action-packed YA fantasy; as means to touch on -isms; and as a conversation between Black Americans. The same could be applied to A Blade So Black. Judging by the online chatter, a lot of people are getting hung up on the surface level. Yes, Blade is a quirky, punch-y teen reboot of Alice in Wonderland. There’s a swoon-inducing romance, a tense love triangle, frightening monsters, and one very creepy Big Bad.

Go down one level and the allegories become apparent. Race means everything in our world, nothing in Wonderland. Corrupt systems created by one group in power cause great harm to others. Gray morality. The misogynistic way the villain treats Alice. We can see how issues of race and racism, gender and sexual identity, class, and ability intersect both with each other and the story.

Yet underneath all that is a world of subtext and historical context. McKinney wrote a book for everyone, but she’s looking straight at Black Americans as she tells her story. Alice as a Black girl is already unlike most YA heroines in supernatural stories, a fact she’s keenly aware of. Everyone can understand what it’s like to stand out, to keep secrets, to lead a double life. But Black women especially can relate to Alice’s troubles. We exist in a world that thinks so little of us that despite us being one of the most educated groups we are paid the least. We can be the angry Black woman or the sassy Black friend, the mammy or the single mom, the welfare queen or the Hillary Banks.

Alice as a hero in a supernatural novel is a political act—it is a refusal to accept the roles forced upon her by society. But that’s not the only way she’s in glorious yet dangerous defiance of the status quo. She likes geeky things and used to cosplay with her father. And, importantly, she’s middle class. We don’t often get stories about Black people who aren’t poor or super wealthy, especially with a single mother involved. McKinney doesn’t bother explaining or justifying Alice’s class or interests. Why should she? She’s speaking to us, her fellow African Americans. We already know how diverse the diaspora is. And for those who don’t know, for those who are bystanders to this internal discussion, well, now you do.

Nothing gets to this deeper conversation more so than the running background plot of Brionne, the young Black girl killed in Alice’s neighborhood. It’s easy to understand why Alice’s mother worries about her daughter not coming home by curfew. A child just died, what parent wouldn’t be stressed out about that? But it’s not just a dead kid. A Black girl was shot to death. The Black community will stitch itself back together and wait for the next shooting, the next killing, the next spat of excuses and finger pointing and accusations and denunciations from those pushing Broken Windows and Stop and Frisk policies.

Alice’s mother can’t contain the violence nor tend to the issues causing it, so she leans on what she can control: Alice. She’s not just a parent wanting to keep her child alive but a parent faced with a system that doesn’t care about her child, alive or dead. Everyone knows the death of a child is a tragedy, but we know. Surviving the loss of our children, our men, and our families is built into the framework of our resistance. Black women keep our communities and families together in the face of ever-present tragedy. Alice’s mother’s fears are part of a long tradition. We had those same fears during slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement, and we will have them for the foreseeable future.

McKinney parallels Alice’s mother with the Queen of Harts. It’s not her daughter’s death that turns her dark but the circumstances surrounding it. The princess was the victim of a system she didn’t create, couldn’t control, and couldn’t change. Nightmares are created by humans, but the Wonderlandians suffer the brunt of their violence. In a way, the Queen of Harts went Killmonger on Wonderland. Unable to stop the evil things born from the violence of others, she instead chose to weaponize them. She found a perverse power in turning the colonizers’ tools on her enemies, even when those who opposed her were her own people.

The Queen of Harts lost herself to her own darkness. Alice’s mother also fell into an emotional abyss after the death of her husband, but unlike the Wonderlandian, she found her way back out again. Would she be able to do so a second time if she lost Alice? Alice is the only piece of her family she has left. She couldn’t save her husband, and not being able to save her child, I think she thinks that might finally break her. Or, at least, that’s what she fears might happen. Grief makes people do terrible things sometimes.

Look, I could write another 3,000 words on everything I loved about A Blade So Black, but instead I’ll tell you to go buy it. Sure, there are some issues with pacing, there’s not enough Wonderland worldbuilding, and the romance was pretty unnecessary, but the dialogue is crackling, the fight sequences are riveting, and the subtext is fascinating. This is a brash, refreshing, vitally diverse retelling of a classic piece of literature. I need this book. You need this book. We all need this book.

A Blade So Black is available from Imprint.

Alex Brown is a YA librarian by day, local historian by night, pop culture critic/reviewer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, check out her endless barrage of cute rat pics on Instagram, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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