Warning: If you have not read “A Blade So Black” by L.L. McKinney, don’t read this review unless you’re fine with spoilers!
I’m back with another book review, and this time I’m reviewing “A Blade So Black” by L.L. McKinney! Here’s a summary so we know what it’s about:
“The first time the Nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she’s trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.
Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job. But when Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.”
Let’s get one thing straight—I’m a sucker for the concept of fairytale retellings or retellings of classics and I’ve reviewed numerous books in this category before. However, given that I just finished writing a Bravely Default/Second fanfic that was an Alice In Wonderland AU during this late October, and given that I’ve never read an Alice In Wonderland AU original fic before, I thought it would be fun to give it a try.
Perhaps I came in with too high expectations, however, because I was quite disappointed overall. One of the main reasons for this was the worldbuilding. The Wonderland elements of it feel rather forced overall, and much of the worldbuilding is explained through explicit telling rather than showing it to the readers. It comes off as being shown a laundry list of elements just handed to us as opposed to giving the idea of stepping into the world and immersing us in it. References are feel almost too-explicitly referred to, such as Tweedle Dee and Dum becoming Russian twins in this version, and I felt like I was being beat over the head with references such as these.
Another problem with this book was the characters. The characters inspired by Carroll’s characters are inspired in name only, and bear little resemblance to their namesakes in their behaviours or roles in the plot. Examples of this are the Tweedle Dee and Dum Russian twins, as well as Hatta (who is supposed to be a play off the Mad Hatter) himself. Even the characters who are not necessarily inspired by Carroll’s characters, such as Courtney and Chess (though I have a feeling ‘Chess’ is supposed to be a play on ‘Cheshire Cat’), are lacking in development and are overall flat. Alice herself is also a rather weakly-written character, as she easily falls for the Black Knight’s schemes for over 75% of the book. And while I’m on the issue of the Black Knight’s character, I felt that he was written to simply be an obstacle for Alice achieving her goals, and didn’t feel like a dynamic, fleshed-out villain at all. Most of the time, I felt like he was simply acting clever and witty because he knew he was smarter than Alice (and to be fair, he outsmarted her for majority of the book).
The character relationships were also very flat overall. Hatta and Alice’s romance felt incredibly sudden, with the two of them randomly getting a near-sex scene for almost no reason at all. Alice’s relationships with Courtney and Alice’s own mother also lack in development, with Alice repeatedly getting in trouble with Courtney and Alice’s own mother for good reason (for example, Alice missing Courtney’s birthday party because of a big mission taking longer than she promised it would, Alice constantly sneaking out and lying to her mom about it), only for Courtney and Alice’s mom to later randomly forgive Alice and pretend it almost all never happened. I’m also confused as of whether Chess was supposed to be romantically involved with Courtney or Alice at times, as the chemistry written in book between Chess and Courtney was weaker as opposed to Chess and Alice in the book. Heck, given that Hatta and Alice are supposed to be romantic with each other, I found it odd that Chess and Alice had better chemistry and development than Hatta and Alice overall. Even if Chess and Alice are meant to be platonic (and I believe the book overall means to lean that way as opposed to romantic), they still have better chemistry and development than Hatta and Alice’s mentoring-turned-romantic relationship.
The plotline of the book is very slow, as the first half of the book does nothing but build up exposition for Alice’s homelife, worldbuilding, and so on—only to rush the second in half in saving Hatta’s life and fighting against the Black Knight, as well as virtually everything else that happens in the plot. Had the first half of the book been condensed to, say, a quarter of the book, the pacing would’ve been tighter and more interesting to read.
If there are any good pros of this book, however, I did find the many combat scenes rather interesting to read. Unfortunately, it gets hard to keep track of who’s doing what in combat scenes in the second half of the book. Another decent pro of this book was the concept of the Nightmares emerging from real-life fears, and I wish this was elaborated on more.
Overall, 1 out of 5 stars. The overall concept was interesting, but failed in its execution.