A Blade so Black, by L.L. McKinney

I wanted to love A Blade So Black, an Alice In Wonderland inspired urban fantasy with a black protagonist. I REALLY want to love it. I TRIED to love it.


I didn’t love it.


A Blade So Black is about Alice, who attends high school in Atlanta by day and battles the monsters who enter our world from Wonderland by night. Her best friend, Courtney, gushes, “You’re like a black Buffy!”


“Thanks? Or just Buffy. Whatever.” Alice replies, before reminding Courtney that Buffy (as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) died “repeatedly.”


On the night of her father’s death, Alice encounters a monster from Wonderland. She is saved by the mysterious Addison Hatta, who trains her to fight Nightmares (the monsters). Alice struggles to maintain her friendship with Courtney, please her protective mother, and deal with her feelings of attraction for Addison and for her friend Chess. Eventually Alice has to go on a quest through Wonderland and our world for Reasons.


I appreciated the fact that this book is not an origin story. Frankly, I’m pretty sick of origin stories, and a well done story that drops you in the middle of the action can be thrilling. However, because this book begins after Alice has been in action for a while, everything is either left unexplained or explained in awkward exposition. The imagery in Wonderland is neat, but the individual scenes never add up to convey a sense of a world. The plot isn’t hard to understand (Alice has to Fight the Monsters and Find a Thing) but there’s no sense of how events will really affect either our world or Wonderland, or how or why events happen the way they do, or why I should care. I have a high tolerance for “Because Magic” as an explanation and even I got fed up. Alice has to use her “Muchness” to find The Eye which will lead her to The Heart so she can cure Addison of a poison left by the Black Knight’s Vorpal Blade, and all of this involves politics from a war that I as the reader have no investment in and know very little about. Never have I cared so little about so many shiny things.


There’s a similar problem with the characters. The only character I actually cared about was Alice’s mother, who I found relatable. The conflict between Alice and her mother is left unresolved, to my frustration. For me the most suspenseful question in the book was whether or not Alice would remember to take the meat out of the fridge by noon. Most of the characters are barely characters at all – there’s very little sense of their personalities or inner lives or motivations. Addison has a mysterious past and eyes that change color. Courtney is white, funny, and high maintenance. Each one is a list of traits, and a list of traits doth not a character make.


In the same way that Wonderland is made of distinct set pieces that don’t feel cohesive, Alice is made of character traits that don’t add up to a whole person. I loved the fact that she’s a geek who creates cosplay and who feels like an outsider among other Black teenagers because of it. However, she comes across a collection of emotions (afraid, upset, ferocious, and very occasionally relaxed) and traits (she likes Sailor Moon and Buffy, she straightens her hair, she loves her mom) instead of an actual person. What does she want to do after high school? What are her goals? The story spends so much time bouncing from scene to scene that Alice is never allowed to just be a person. Everything is tell, not show. The one scene in which Alice came alive to me involved her goofing off with her best friend in the cafeteria. Maybe the book needed a few more scenes like that in which nothing much is happening except for people being themselves.


All throughout the book, characters refer to the death of another Black teenager, Brionne. I kept thinking that Brionne’s death would tie in to Wonderland, as well as the death of Alice’s father. However, they never do, at least not strongly. Instead Brionne’s death serves as a constant reminder that Alice will always be in danger, if for no other reason than the color of her skin. This is a powerful aspect of the book, but I wished it had been tied in to the rest of the story more closely.


I liked the parts. Alice being geeky, Alice’s mom trying to get a grip on things, Wonderland being a pretty and terrifying place – these were all cool pieces. The problem is that the pieces never came together. I care a little bit about Alice, but not a lot. I don’t care at all about the other characters. I don’t care about politics in Wonderland or Alice’s love life or what will happen after the cliffhanger ending (yep, one of those). It was a worthy effort that just never clicked with me.


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