You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
The Chronicles of Alice
Well that was uninspiring. Having now read three of Christina Henry’s books, I am in a prime position to say that she seems to specialize in disappointing conclusions, for which I have dubbed her the Queen of Lame Endings. There’s no nice way of saying this: her endings suck like a black hole. They’re the kind of endings that make you think the author didn’t have an outline, because they don’t tie anything off in a way that feels definitive. In The Girl in Red, the titular character spends most of the book either fighting off or evading toothy creatures that seem to have been brewed in a lab, but you never find out where they came from because Red decides that she doesn’t need to know. In Alice, Alice defeats the Big Bad following the lamest final battle I’ve ever seen in my life. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. Then it’s revealed that she hasn’t technically got rid of him and he might cause trouble later, but this is never really addressed in Red Queen, which ends on a similarly ambiguous note. Look, I’m all for ambiguity, but it has to be done well. It was done well in Circe, in The Handmaid’s Tale, in How Much of These Hills Is Gold. It wasn’t done well here. The Alice series has a third book called Looking Glass, which is a collection of novellas that seems to include some sort of explanation for the Jabberwock’s supremely dissatisfying ending, but, owing to my opinions on Henry’s story-tying-off skills, I will not be reading it. One could argue that Henry’s books are more about the journey than the arrival, but it’s been three books and I’m still dissatisfied.
The Chronicles of Alice, which might just as well be known as the Trials and Tribulations of Alice, opens in the mental asylum in which Alice has been trapped for the better part of the last decade. The asylum sits in a divided city: the New City is the shiny part of the city, where the rich people live; the Old City is the part where underworld bosses rule over territories and their gangs roam the streets, enforcing rules and pushing territory boundaries. Alice was imprisoned at sixteen, and is now twenty-six. (Side note: I thought this was going to be a somewhat dark but otherwise fairly light-hearted YA romp but page 2 makes it clear that Alice was violently raped shortly before being incarcerated, so bang went that idea.) Her wealthy family has mostly abandoned her, aside from short obligatory visits to keep up appearances, and her only friend is Hatcher, an axe murderer who lives in the cell next to hers, with whom she communicates through the mouse hole in the wall between their rooms. When the asylum catches fire, Alice and Hatcher escape and make it across the river to Hatcher’s grandmother’s house. Unfortunately, the asylum also loses the Jabberwock, a dangerous magician who’s been locked up for centuries, sealed away by another magician. Knowing that the Jabberwock is seeking the one object that will restore the power he’s lost, Alice and Hatcher set out to defeat him. Along the way they meet Cheshire, the Caterpillar, and the Walrus, three of the Old City bosses, but gradually realize that if they want to stop the Jabberwock they will have to confront the Rabbit, the man who raped Alice before she was put into the asylum. Along the way Alice discovers latent magical powers of her own, which allow her to talk to animals and reshape the world around her, though her powers also attract Cheshire, who sets up a telepathic link that enables him to pop into her head without so much as a how-d’you-do.
This book would’ve been far more compelling if Alice hadn’t defeated the side villains with idiotic ease. She barely has to do anything, because they don’t really seem to be trying. She catches the Caterpillar by surprise and slits his throat with no trouble, then unleashes a giant angry rabbit on the Walrus. The Walrus is supposed to be a powerful fighter, but he loses to the rabbit. I’m still not really sure how. Then Alice confronts the Rabbit (the man who abused her, not the giant bunny who slaughtered the Walrus), who turns out to have lost all his power, and speaks with him briefly before he is strangled by his servant. When all is said and done, Alice finally meets the Jabberwock, and, after he spends three pages trash-talking her, she……….turns him into a butterfly. That is literally what happens. She wishes he would become a butterfly in a jar and somebody in the universe says “Let it be so,” and a second later she’s holding a green glass jar with a butterfly in it. I wish I were joking. Her ultimate plan doesn’t involve throwing the jar into the river of toxic waste. Her ultimate plan is to carry the world’s most powerful magician around in a jam jar until she forgets about him, at which point, per the dictates of her wish/spell, he will crumble into dust. The only good part about the ending is that she breaks Cheshire’s mind link and tells him to get the fuck out of her head.
Incredibly lame ending aside, I do like the setting and the references to the original Alice in Wonderland. I like the premise of the book and the series, and I like Alice’s magician heritage. I like Pipkin (the giant Walrus-murdering bunny rabbit). I really like that, after the abuse she has suffered, Alice makes every effort to rescue other victims of sexual abuse. Upon finding the Walrus’s private stash of girls, she and Hatcher break them out and send them off to freedom with Pipkin as an escort, and I’m here for it. I’m less fond of her overall relationship with Hatcher and I wish her powers had been better developed, but I figured these would both improve given time and enough books.
Then I got to Red Queen, which picks up where Alice left off. Having defeated the Jabberwock (sort of), Alice and Hatcher leave the city and follow Pipkin and the Walrus’s girls into the desert next door, where after a three-day slog they find that Pipkin and the girls have been burned to cinders. Honestly I don’t want to write this anymore because I loved Pipkin and now he’s a handful of bones and ash in the middle of a desert, and this story sucks. After leaving Pipkin’s charred remains, Alice and Hatcher stumble across an enchanted village and then a giant forest, which has been booby-trapped by the White Queen, who lives at the top of a nearby mountain and has been kidnapping children from a local village. Hatcher gets turned into a wolf shortly after arriving in the forest and spends most of the book that way, and Alice, who finally has a chance to learn to be independent after a solid twenty-six years of living under other people’s thumbs, does manage to stand on her own two feet for a time but ultimately is motivated not by her own freedom but by her desire to return to her somewhat unhealthy relationship with Hatcher.
In the end, Red Queen is nearly as disappointing as Alice. It’s more tied off, but the final battle isn’t a battle at all and the Jabberwock remains at large. The villains suffer the same problem in Red Queen as they do in Alice, which is that they’re so weak they might as well not be there. Literally the only reason Alice keeps winning is that her opponents are shells of what they used to be, and by the time she gets there they have nothing left to fight her with. En route to the forest and the castle, Alice and Hatcher encounter signs of the Black King, a village boy who stole a magician’s powers and is now capable of burning people to ash, but by the time he confronts Alice he lacks the power to actually attack her. He then turns out to be less of a villain and more of a confused boy who doesn’t know what to do with himself. The White Queen’s power has been keeping an entire forest under control, but then Alice actually meets her and finds a living corpse. Meanwhile the Jabberwock butterfly is still living in his jar and talking in Alice’s head despite her stoutest efforts to forget him, and he stays there for the entire book. I was sort of expecting him to break loose and get into a more satisfying battle with Alice, thus giving her an opportunity to play with her emerging powers, but he instead gets lost amid the scuffle when Alice brings down the White Queen’s castle.
And, even after all her character-building adventures, Alice is still not her own person. This was understandable in Alice, where she was still dealing with the trauma brought on by rape, incarceration, and abandonment, but Red Queen was supposed to be her book. Freed from the constraints of wardens, bosses, and Hatcher, she was supposed to be learning to deal with things on her own. Instead she carries Cheshire around with her after he re-establishes the mental link she broke at the end of Alice because that dude cannot take no for an answer, and is nagged and needled by him throughout her quest to defeat the White Queen. Maybe he plays some role in the development of her powers in Looking Glass, but as of this writing I do not see the point of his continued interference, and I really don’t appreciate his decision to pop back into her head despite her clear lack of consent. I also don’t love Alice’s relationship with Hatcher, which strikes me as unhealthy, and I really hope this is something that gets fixed in Looking Glass, because Alice should not be in a relationship where she finds herself running for her life, no matter what the circumstances.
I’m sure there must be people out there who think Alice and Hatcher are perfectly sweet together, but I am not one of them. I was okay with Alice and Hatcher for most of Alice, but I really didn’t like them in Red Queen. It’s great that they would kill for each other and all, but in my view this is a case of two incredibly damaged people mistaking shared trauma for compatibility. I don’t like that Hatcher constantly refers to Alice as something that belongs to him. (Pertinent question: when is Alice going to get done with men who think of her as theirs?) I don’t like that he’s probably about twenty years older than her. I don’t like that she actually has to run away from him for her own safety. I feel for him and I know he’d just watched his daughter die, but that wasn’t Alice’s fault, and I really didn’t like that while she was running away from him in a desperate bid to keep him from spontaneously killing her she was still worrying about whether he would ever be able to forgive her.
To be perfectly fair, I don’t hate their relationship as much as I hate other, far more toxic relationships. This isn’t Fifty Shades of Grey. I can’t blame them for using their respective traumas and their mutual desire for a stable relationship as a basis for their romance. I may not like it, but I understand it. They’re all they have. They have nowhere else to go and nobody else to be with. No one they’ve known is going to understand them the way they understand each other. At the very least they fight like hell for each other and they respect each other’s wounds, and, given that neither of them is particularly stable, maybe that’s the best they can do for now. That may seem harsh, but it’s not really clear if they’d still be so into each other if they weren’t united by their trauma, because neither of them is particularly captivating. Alice has magical powers, which is good, but she seems to have missed out on personality, because I’d never be able to describe her. Hatcher is rough and capable and occasionally descends into episodes of axe-swinging rage, but, now that I think about it, I don’t know that I’d be able to describe him either. If you asked me to sum them up in three words each, I’d be in serious trouble.
The other problem is that Alice’s powers are inconsistent, and it’s hard to gauge what she can do and what she can’t. She performs feats that make it seem like magic is a breeze for her, but then in the next moment she’ll be working her way around another problem without magic and I’ll be wondering why the hell she isn’t using her powers. I don’t expect her to have total knowledge of her full potential, given that she is untrained and still learning, but there were things I thought she could’ve done by magic. Unfortunately, in these instances she seems to forget that she is a magician, and she often ends up doing things the hard way for no particular reason. Magic is supposed to be exciting, but in this series it’s so poorly established that it almost makes me wonder if Henry had a plan at all, or if she just started writing and didn’t bother figuring out certain important details, such as how the magic system works and how its practitioners control it.
I think I might’ve been less disappointed with Alice if I’d read the Chronicles of Alice before I read The Girl in Red, because Red elevated my expectations to a level that Alice couldn’t match. Alice is strong enough, but she lacks personality, and, though delightfully ruthless in some situations, displays a nonsensical level of compassion in others.
Alice did not care if he burned agents of the Ministry, for they did nothing to save the lost folk of the Old City. But she cared about those who’d strayed into the Black King’s path, and [were] therefore punished for nothing.
“And the plain too,” Alice said, thinking of Pipkin and the lost girls he’d tried to save. “And the village and the giants who lived in it.”
“Those giants,” Bjarke said, coughing more blood into his hand as he spoke. “They were nothing but the Queen’s lapdogs. They ate people who passed through there, the ones that fell into her trap.”
Alice considered telling him of the innocents he’d killed in his rage, of how Pen and his brothers had been victims of the White Queen, as Bjarke was. Telling it could not change the past, though, and Bjarke had been more than punished for stolen magic.
I’m sorry, but this is bullshit. Bjarke is lucky he was dealing with Alice and not with me, because I would’ve rubbed it in his face for the final fifteen minutes of his life. While it’s true that telling him would not change the past or bring Pipkin back to life, he doesn’t deserve to die with the self-righteous certainty that the murders he committed were justifiable. He has been adequately punished for stealing magic. He has suffered no punishment at all for the far worse crime of setting fire to innocent people and creatures. Pipkin and the girls did not deserve to be burned to death, and it infuriates me that Bjarke gets to die without knowing what he did.
On a more positive note, I like what Henry did with the battle between the Red Queen and the White Queen. I’m glad that I didn’t have to sit through 300 pages of cattiness and backstabbing, because the Red Queen is already dead by the time the story begins and all her power resides in her crown, which then uses Alice as a tool to carry out its revenge on the White Queen. (Less good, but, hey, magical objects have a habit of doing that.) On the other hand, the story of the Queens was yet another thing that could’ve been fleshed out a bit more than it was, but, as with other things, Henry skated over it at the speed of light and all you really know about the Queens is that they were sisters who hated each other until one of them ended up dead. The surviving Queen ended up dead as well, but, since her spot was usurped by an impostor, there’s not much else to say about her.
Overall verdict: I wouldn’t go out of my way for this series. The premise and the world are wonderful, but there’s just so much wasted potential. I don’t understand how a book with Red Queen‘s set-up can end up being so unbelievably dull, but here we are. The writing is all right and it’s certainly better than it was in The Girl in Red, but it’s nothing to scream about. The best I can say is that each book can be finished in one sitting. If you can get these secondhand or at the library, great, but I wouldn’t run out and buy them new.