I’ll say up front, Alice in Wonderland is not my favorite imaginary world. I don’t have a hate on for it or anything, but it bugs me when a heroine is rather too stupid. I mean how can you be surprised when nothing makes much sense after you willingly followed a rabbit down a hole? Still I kept an open mind reading The Looking Glass Wars. The strength of Wonderland has always been the secondary characters so as far as meat for re-imagined stories go the author was incredibly blessed.
Book club, book club, book club. You complain about childish YA reads then you choose a re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland! How childish can we get? I have to admit the love triangle was practically non-existent as the third member of the triangle was prone to fatness even at a young age. Still as he’s a member of the royal suits you never know how a girl’s heart might go…
All kidding aside this was a terribly written book. I tend not to go on about the literal writing as it’s a lot of work to get to the end of your story. I can attest to that personally. So we’ll leave the criticism at that. It was bad. It actually had tons of potential though and an unfinished book can’t be published. So if you’re wondering how something so terribly written gets published – that’s why. If it’s coherent enough and finished, all problems aside, it’ll get the go ahead to print. Especially with such a promising premise as a re-imagining of a favorite classic story.
So if we skip the actually writing aspect, how was the story?
Great imagination. I especially loved the twists on the secondary characters. The updated warfare (instead of spears they had all manner of modern weapons), yet the retention of the decks and cards, really worked well. I really wanted drawings of all the gadgets and inventions created through Redd’s nefarious black imagination. As far as plot goes it was basic: a straight forward take out the antagonist forthwith. I’ve said it in the past – there’s nothing explicitly wrong with a simple story line. The difficulty with simplicity is it showcases the dirt, errors and plain un-thought out thinking with ease. Two major missteps in The Looking Glass Wars stood out yet if dealt with could have overcome all of the book’s many problems. Even the crappy writing. (We all have to start somewhere and with experience everything gets better…uhh…. right?)
Problem #1: We don’t care for Alyss
We start with Alyss as a young girl at her seventh birthday party. She’s being petulant because her father is on a diplomatic mission instead of celebrating with her. To top it off her best friend isn’t in attendance either and it annoys Alyss. When Dodge does appear she accepts his gift and they sneak off the grounds for the first time in Alyss’ young life. For mothers who have seen their young children grow into fine adults and shed such traits like petulance perhaps Alyss is a girl to root for. Or it could be solidarity among the female species that engendered a love for Alyss in reader’s bosoms. I for one would have thrown the book across the room as soon as finish it if is wasn’t for the fact I was reading it for book club!
Now many will say I’m just being impatient (I’m talking about my fellow book clubers, you know who you are!) By the end of part one you come to sympathize with Alyss because her father and mother are slaughtered and she’s abandoned alone in London. Call me hard, but many people are in a bad spot. Suck it up. There was no redeeming quality to Alyss that stirred a desire in me to root for her success. Nothing I was shown, or even told, that hinted that Alyss would make a good queen or that she was essential for the welfare of Wonderland. Sure the Wonderlanders mourned Alyss, but wouldn’t you too if the alternative were a dictator who sent you to work in crystal mines?
Problem #2: Alyss has no Character Arc
Now let’s assume it’s enough for you that Alyss has a hard plight for a seven-year old. Fine. Do we see Alyss grow from that petulant seven-year old to a woman who could be queen?
Simply – no.
The book is divided into three sections. Part one covers Alyss as a seven-year old adjusting to earth. We end with her having some hope in proving she isn’t a lying fanciful girl. Part two is a summary of the next thirteen years with a few digressions along the way. We jump to 11-year-old Alice (note the name change) and are told how she’s lost all hope and has changed to being a kind girl who catches the eye of a prince because of said kindness. (First off I find it hard to believe being told one is crazy and stupid would inspire a girl to become a tender-hearted adopted daughter whose sole goal is to make her mother happy. Personally I’d become bitter and would pursue whatever caught my fancy. But that’s me…) Ignoring my totally sensical digression, we finish our summation with the Hatter finally revealing to the Alyssians (Wonderlanders loyal to Alyss) that Alyss still lives. For section two being a total of exactly 70 of the total 358 pages a lot of time passes through this hop skip and jump. Section three starts with what is really the present plot: right before Alyss is returned to Wonderland and expected to conquer her fierce murderous aunt (i.e. the plot of the book).
When sections are used like this in a book it’s generally to jump periods of time where not much happens. The writer simply needs time to pass. The character doesn’t change much, if at all because of course not much happened. This wasn’t the case with Alyss. She changed. A lot. Now here we are, left with three different versions of Alyss, and only a few great leaps of unsupported logic to explain why she is how she now is. It’s like three totally different characters are presented to us and at the end we are told ‘surprise! all three of those girls are the same person!’ All I want to say is ‘uh, what?’ The point of a story is to journey with our protagonist as they experience events, react, grow, change, react better. This is called a character arc. It’s a journey we want to feel as if it were our own journey. It’s hard to do that when we start each “section” with a totally different character.
But wait…There’s a Solution!
The author wasn’t wrong about section three’s Alyss being the girl the readers would want to spend the most time with…but how to show the little girl who formed the core of that Alyss?
In one word: flashbacks.
FLASHBACKS?!?! Did you say flashbacks?! What the…? Are you freaking crazy?!
Calm down and let me explain. Flashbacks aren’t evil. Personally they aren’t even one of my favorite things. But it merits saying again, they aren’t evil. They have their uses. We’ve already established this isn’t the best writer. For him to be able to show us in a believable way how Alyss became the girl she is, is impossible. It’s why the editor chose to publish the book ‘as is’ instead of getting the writer to do rewrites. So the next best thing is to use the Alyss from section three.
The book opens with a nightmare, a melding of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and the true Wonderland. We don’t really know what happened but it makes our heart pound for the girl. She awakens as Alice Liddell, a woman of earth (note the name again). A kind-hearted girl ‘falling’ for Prince Leopold at the beck and call of her parents and siblings such that we find it hard to even believe she’s been adopted! Through flashback we show how Alyss came to be with the Liddells and why she chose to ‘forget’ Wonderland, as she prepares to marry Leopold. (She only remembers in these twisted recollections brought to the surface of her mind when she’s at her most vulnerable.) She agrees to marry the man because it’s the path of least resistance but she recalls her youth (in Wonderland) because of that same decision, causing doubts to arise to trouble her former peaceful state of mind.
If we don’t start with the death of her parents and, in fact, barely mention it during this period of time, how in the world are we supposed to have sympathy for Alyss?!?! Tell us that!
I will. Again with one word: Dodge. Or stating it another way two points of view. Now this might seem confusing as the writer does use Dodge’s point of view a couple of times through the book (when Alyss isn’t present to be the point of view character). I know. That’s why it isn’t such a stretch for the writer to expand Dodge’s point of view to take a full half of the story. First off, as a male writer he should know a male mind and so should easily be able to present a fully developed man. As Dodge is one of the better parts of the entire story I’ll say that’s proof enough I’m right.
I’ll explain. Dodge loves Alyss. One of the most powerful storytelling techniques is to show how another character feels about the protagonist. Since we are shown this through a separate character’s feelings we relate easier. We don’t have to like the protagonist for the same reasons as that separate character but we do tend to respect another’s feelings for their loved ones. There is no contrivance or stretching to believe we should give Alyss a chance and love her too if Dodge loves her.
We start Dodge in the present but in Wonderland. He’s fighting for the Alyssian cause and it’s rough going as Redd has grown smarter in her methods for dealing with the rebels. We show how bad things have gotten and show the status quo that Alyss will be dropping into if she can get back from earth – it won’t be pleasant for her. In flashback we show the young idealistic boy in love with a princess and contrast him to the bitter, angry and revengeful man he is today. For example, we show how he stood in the shadows and watched the birthday girl’s delight and mischievous fun during the Inventor’s Parade. How he’d held himself back because of a talk he’d had with his father, a man he greatly respected, which we also recount to show the love between the father and son. We show from his point of view Queen Genevieve’s head being chopped off and his own father’s death at the hands of The Cat. We could also learn of her father’s death at the hands of Redd’s cards through Dodge. He could feel it a blessing she’s gone and not forced to relive her father’s death like he does.
Learning this things about Alyss from Dodge’s point of view we can see how much he truly loves Alyss and how much the grown up Alyss needs Dodge. Once this duel setup is complete we come back to Wonderland with Alyss when Dodge rescues her from her wedding. We present her difficulty with using imagination and we know it is only a hiccup for this tough and wise woman, forced to grow up to become the queen needed to fight her powerful aunt Redd. We grow concerned as Alyss grows increasingly concerned by Dodge’s dark emotions. We too are in love with Dodge as he so openly shared with us his deep and personal love of Alyss. As he willingly allows black imagination to grow inside all in the name of his revenge on The Cat, saving Dodge becomes our motivating drive to keep reading. Alyss is a forgone conclusion – we know she will become queen, we’ve seen her struggles and admire the girl she’s become. Such a woman will defeat Redd, but will she be able to save Dodge?
You can see I’ve remained true to the writer’s ideas for the end of Alyss’ journey back to the Wonderland of her youth. Through a second, larger point of view with Dodge we fall in love with both characters hard and unshakably. By using the past to develop the present we don’t need to trouble ourselves with character arc, we show that arc through both characters’ flashbacks. It remains the same imaginative story but becomes a much more compelling version of The Looking Glass Wars.
I have a friend who loves YA stories. In fact, she’s the one who chose this selection for book club. She’s always telling me, “Well, I’m not a writer. I don’t care about things like character sympathy and development. I don’t even notice when you say the protagonist did something out of character. Just give me a good story.” This really frustrates me. You might not use the same terminology as I do but if you were to read a corrected version of the story you’d be able to see the difference. When we care about someone we are loyal to them. We willingly follow where others falter. With sequels increasingly disappointing readers I believe it’ll be MORE and MORE essential to get this first book right. Make me fall in love with Alyss. Show me she’s worthy of my loyalty. And reading the second and third books in the trilogy will be a no-brainer.