Friday, January 11, 2013

Splintered review: A return to Wonderland done right

Few books have received the level of utter love across every realm of media the way Lewis Carroll's two most famous works, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have managed to.

Granted, more often than not these two works are run together, specifically people's erroneous idea that the Tweedles and the Jabberwocky poem came from the AIW when they in fact were in TTLG. But despite the card motif of AIW and the chess motif of TTLG getting mixed up/together, plenty of movies and TV series have been built around this world.

Actually, my first exposure to the characters came in Adventures in Wonderland, a 1990s Disney show for kids that starred Elizabeth Harnois, who is now known as Morgan Brody from CSI, as Alice. I highly recommend this show for kids.

But I'm here today to talk about the sequels and elseworld stories that are built from these two books. Quite frankly, many are quite terrible. The Tim Burton nightmare gave a glimpse into a Wonderland that was actually quite terrifying and served as a warning for what happens when Johnny Depp is given Edward Scissorhands makeup that isn't black.

The one good thing it did, though, is show that a dark Wonderland can work if someone actually takes the time to do some universe building while addressing how a children's story looks so messed up. And boy, did we get that in A.G. Howard's debut novel, Splintered.

Awesome program. Find it on YouTube.
The book is an admirably quick read, finishing up in hardcover form in slightly fewer than 400 pages (about the length of a Hunger Games book, which will be reviewed as a trilogy at a later date). The cover is absolutely gorgeous, and I'm not referring to the girl.

It has a Garden of Eden feel and the girl, supposedly the main character, is given a look of innocence, symbolic of the innocence the source material loses when clubbed by the plot of this story.

But just because it's a darker take does not mean it's a bad story. Heck, in many ways its plot actually has a real flow to it that can't be done in the source material.

The book focuses on Alyssa, a high school junior who is six generations the successor of her ancestor, Alice Liddell, on whom Carroll based his main character. It is revealed that ever since Alice apparently went insane, every succeeding member of the bloodline has gone insane, believing they hear insects talking and having a tea party-based fetish.

(I could go with a politically satirical picture here, but I'd rather not get that comment war going.)

So yeah, Alyssa gets the same sensations as soon as she hits adolescence, leading her to fear that she may end up in an asylum like her mother, who actually doesn't come off as very insane outside of the occasional display of violence (which actually makes sense as you go along).

When she realizes that this insanity may have something to do with Wonderland, she seeks out the location of the original rabbit hole in England and goes down. Unfortunately, her, uh, boy who has friend-zoned her, ends up down there with her.

What proceeds is a hero's journey from the two to undo Alice's wrongs and restore sanity to the bloodline, and there are so many Wonderlandian twists along the way that you'll not be sure where you're going even though you're confident you know how it will end. (And you kind of will be right, but not in the way you were expecting.)

The characters in this book are portrayed with a great amount of depth and intelligently. Alyssa tells the story in the first person, so you get a real feel for her growing emotional conflict as she finds out more about her past.

She's portrayed as a clean, American girl with a rebellious streak that doesn't get nearly enough time to work itself out, and Wonderland does a great job of letting her unleash it.

Wonderland itself is a terrifying world that most likely scared the crap out of Alice when she went through it. The whole thing has a gothic kind of feel and many of the iconic characters from the book come off as unsettling.

The thing is, it works. Unlike Burton's version, which just looks weird, Howard does a tremendous job with universe-building. An explanation given is that Alice was too young to process what she saw, so Lewis Carroll wrote the most coherent account he could based on the story she was telling. The book reveals a more likely (and equally sensible) reason why the worlds are so different, so I have to give Howard respect for giving the reader a frame of mind for her world.

Characters from both AIW and TTLG are brought up, the most important being the Catterpillar, who is now a butterfly named, ugh, Morpheus.

Not that Morpheus! Evidently this one looks like The Crow with wings.

I know it has a mythological connotation, but could universe-bending stories stop using Morpheus as major character names? It's becoming a tired trope and I'd prefer stories just come up with their own unique names. Thank you.

Alison, Alyssa's mom, is a really fun character for the little time she gets. I actually wouldn't mind a book chronicling her messed up life. Sounds like there's a horror story somewhere in there.

Jeb, Alyssa's crush/friend/guy, is a good character, though at times his inability to shut up and let Alyssa get information from characters is REALLY irksome. Dude needs to chill.

The romance between the two comes off as fairly natural, but of course there has to be a love triangle to appeal to teens. This one uses Morpheus and it's framed not only as a romantic decision, but one determining which moral code Alyssa will take down the road.

That's actually a good idea. While Twilight popularized it (somehow) through just being a triangle, this one had a purpose and actually created a rooting interest without turning it into teen angst crap.

My biggest complaints (all two of them) come in the final act of the book right near the climax. The whole time it's clear that a real sacrifice is going to have to be made, and kudos to Howard for still managing to surprise me when Alyssa has to make her sacrifice.

BUT as her sacrifice plays out, it runs by really quickly and the payoff mostly affects a character who had only been mentioned in the book. I think giving said character some time to talk and be notable would have made the scene far more emotional.

The other complaint, which is slightly larger, is that the after we finally have the climax that's been building for more than 100 pages, a second one is then jammed in immediately after. It is set up, so it doesn't hurt the book heavily, but the reader is just recovering from the moment they'd been waiting for and this was not necessary. It also didn't help that in the TRUE final struggle, it took me a couple of reads to properly understand what was happening in the scene.

Overall, though, while some scenes didn't hit their hardest and one really didn't work besides to set up a sequel (PLEASE do a trilogy with Alison/the Liddells as a prequel and a single sequel addressing that plot twist!), this was a great read.

I was hooked from the first chapter all the way to the end and would highly recommend this for anyone who is a fan or AIW/TTLG or is interested in learning about the universe. It really makes you want to go read the source material and try to figure out all the references and what the gothic were like in the originals.

This is by far the most worthy successor to the Carroll universe in book form I've seen, and here's hoping A.G. Howard continues her writing career (and makes that trilogy and some film adaptations).

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