A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

“She’d protected this world, but would anyone protect her?”

A Blade So Black Cover

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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. 

4 STARS

CW: loss of a loved one, violence (including gun violence), body horror, police brutality, gore (including eye gore)

In most cases, I tend to be picky about my retellings. There’s not many fairy tales I enjoy to begin with (they’re just not my speed), and fresh spins on them have to be really, really fresh to catch my eye. And most of the time, I’m still wary. This is especially true when we’re talking Alice in Wonderland retellings, since my little sister is a huge fan and I’ve been burnt out on them since she realized she couldn’t get enough.

But A Blade So Black isn’t your average Alice retelling, and I am so glad I went ahead and picked it up.

Seeing L.L. McKinney in person in October set me on the path to reading ABSB. She pitched it as Buffy meets Alice, and the way she described it seemed so enthusiastic and personal that I had to give it a go.

Am I glad I did! ABSB is a wonderland not only in its literary origins, but in its cast. For one, Alice Kingston is an excellent lead, a Black girl who hunts the Nightmares that cross from Wonderland into the real world. She’s trained under Addison Hatta to defeat these beasts, since they can only be truly killed by humans, not Wonderland residents, and in a lot of ways, kicking Nightmare ass is a way for her to cope with losing her father. Alice really is the star of the show, wrestling with grief and anger and fear at the same time she tries to be a teenage girl who hangs out with her best friends and does normal teenage things, like her homework. She knows what she’s doing on some occasions, and she’s in over her head on others, which feels entirely realistic to me. I loved her moments of uncertainty as much as I loved the moments where she took charge and refused to accept that things were going to go south. She’s a wonderful character, really.

And the supporting cast was fun as well! Alice’s best friend, Court, is both fun and supportive while also having some flaws that create some friction between her and Alice, especially when Alice’s Nightmare hunting interferes. Chess, meanwhile, makes a great mediator between the two girls, and is probably the calmest, most well-adjusted of the trio. Add in your cast of Wonderland residents, like enigmatic Hatta, dreamy Madi, stuffy Princess Odabeth, devoted Xelon, and others, and you really have an all-star series of characters to attach yourself to! They all have distinct voices, and each one feels like truly their own person. Plus, the parallels between classic Wonderland characters are fun to spot!

You’ll also find queer characters in the cast! Alice is pretty heavily implied to be bi (the word bisexual isn’t used to describe her on the page, but the implications are clear AND, again, another review, they’re expanded on in the second book), and there’s a f/f couple who actually act on their feelings toward the end of the book.

As for the plot, there were some ups and downs. Mostly ups, given that I think this is easily a 4 star book, but a couple downs. On the positives, I LOVE that ABSB factors in Alice’s mom, because it makes her mom an active force in her life, and sometimes an antagonistic one at that. While Court knows the truth and helps Alice cover up her Nightmare-hunting activities, Alice’s mom is in the dark about what her daughter does after school, and Alice has to find clever ways to avoid her mom’s suspicion (which isn’t easy). And on the Wonderland side of things, it’s not always clear how to proceed, and the threat of the Black Knight is an excellent looming presence. In this way, I think the plot was excellent.

On the other hand, I did find myself thinking something was missing. I can’t put my finger on it, save to suggest that perhaps ABSB didn’t resolve quite enough before reaching the end, but there’s some element to the plot that leaves me wanting. A full arc, maybe, just one? Answers to the questions we all have? I left ABSB eager for A Dream So Dark so it’s certainly still written well. I’m just searching for something that I can’t seem to describe, but know is missing. It’s a bit frustrating.

Overall, though, I’m thrilled to finally have found a version of Alice in Wonderland that I enjoy (instead of feeling only a vague disinterest), and I really encourage you to give A Blade So Black a try if you haven’t already! It’s got heart, a phenomenal cast, and a plot that ties two worlds close together, for better or for worse. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this!

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