Book Review: Alice by Christina Henry

Alice by Christina Henry
Alice by Christina Henry
Penguin, 2015

Alice by Christina Henry is… interesting. Compelling. Artful. There’s a poetry to the writing, the dialog is spare and evocative. The author’s vision of a violent Victorian world, shaped by sharp caste divisions and twisted by strange magic, is deeply rendered and believable.

We meet Alice in an insane asylum, suffering from post-traumatic stress after a violent encounter ten years prior which she can’t fully remember. She’s from the wealthy part of town but her family has abandoned her. Her only friend is the man in the adjacent cell, who, if anything, is even more insane than Alice and also suffering from memory loss. He knows about a monster trapped in the basement.

There’s a fire, they escape, and thus begins a quest through the darkest parts of the City’s underworld, which returns their memories and brings Alice into her own as a Magician in a world where magic has been banned.

It may not be the most original tale on the shelf but it’s a good story, one worth reading.

What elevates Ms. Henry’s novel above other similar fare are her characters. There’s a depth of humanity to each of them—even the violent, even the depraved—which imbues the narrative with a deeply personal resonance. This is more than just another dark magic story. This is a story about the resilience of human nature.

Ultimately, Alice is a cathartic and moving experience.

But for all the novel’s strengths, there’s a problem…

This isn’t a story about Alice. Not in the sense that we expect from a work which presents itself as a riff on Lewis Carroll.

This novel was initially inspired by Carroll’s Alice stories. As inspiration, that’s fine—but I wish it had been allowed to move beyond that inspiration, to throw off those shackles and breathe freely as its own idea. The references to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass actually get in the way of Ms. Henry’s story.

Beyond the names of the characters (some of which are delightful puns) and the quasi-Victorian setting, this novel has nothing in common with Carroll’s original Alice stories: structurally, thematically, stylistically, it’s an entirely different beast. None of the characters need to have their Alice-referencing names: every one of them could be rendered exactly has they are with completely different names and nothing would be lost from the story. There’s a tea party, but again: it could have been rendered as any other kind of party where food and beverages are consumed and it would serve its function equally well.

All of these references to Carroll are arbitrary. But because of these references, I kept looking for something more meaningful in them, some essential point of connection between this story and Carroll’s, which would make all of it necessary. There aren’t any. They do nothing to add meaning or expand the narrative. Searching for concrete points of connection between Ms. Henry’s story and her source material becomes a distraction, interrupting the flow of my reading. As a result, this whole concept becomes a stumbling block which gets in the way of my ability to fully invest myself in this story on its own terms.

Ms. Henry’s story is good enough that it deserves better.

Moreover, presenting this story as an Alice in Wonderland-inspired tale significantly undersells what Ms. Henry’s novel has to offer. Dark, violent riffs on Lewis Carroll are a dime-a-dozen, commonplace to the point of cliché. Alice is good story, a compelling vision with fascinating characters told through powerful language. Insisting that it’s another dark, violent riff on Carroll characterizes the tale as something less than what it is.

Ms. Henry’s story deserves better. It’s interesting enough on its own without the forced and awkward trappings of Carroll’s Alice. It’s an ill-fitting costume thoughtlessly draped over a tale which deserves to be seen and appreciated for itself.

I really don’t understand why she insisted on presenting her Alice as something it’s clearly not. She got stuck on her own clever idea and it prevents the novel from reaching its fullest potential.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Alice by Christina Henry”

  1. I couldn’t agree more, when I began to read this book I instantly fell in love. However It didn’t seem like the average Alice story, I kept trying to fit parts of this book with the original. So much so that I decided to go online, to find out what was going on with it. Thats when I came across your view. I feel the same, that when am reading I am constatly trying to piece it all together. Don’t get me wrong its a fabulous read but if the story was its own and not related to Alice I think it would have made for a much better flow and a lot less confusion.

    Saying all that I’ve came to the decision that am going to continue it but with a different view, that is has nothing to do with Alice and its, its own story. Hopefully that way my mind will stop trying to fix it.

    I was also wondering if you or anyone else knew any other good book like this one. I’ve been looking around for a while and have been really struggling. I would love to find that perfect book.

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    1. Christina Henry has written a sequel: The Red Queen which came out just a few weeks ago. I haven’t read it yet.

      Otherwise, for a riff on Carroll, there’s After Alice by Gregory Maguire. I find The Magicians by Lev Grossman to be similar in tone (dark, violent, characters who need to find themselves) and if you’re drawn to similarly magical urban settings, you really can’t go wrong with Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.

      Personally, I think there’s some stylistic similarities between Ms. Henry and Margaret Atwood but that might be stretching things a bit.

      Otherwise, I’ve had a few people recommend The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. I haven’t read it, though, so I can’t vouch personally.

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