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The Looking-Glass Wars

Style: Good

Attitude: Some Care Needed → Fairly Positive

In Brief: A fresh reimagining of Alice in Wonderland. Some violent deaths and oppression. Perseverance and bravery in the face of exile and persecution. Apparent magical creation of life.

Cover of The Looking-Glass Wars

Author: Frank Beddor

Series: The Looking-Glass Wars

Publisher: Egmont

Published in: 2004

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Mid 19th C

Setting: Wonderland, Victorian London

Genres:  AdventureFantasy


Characters:

  • 7-year-old Alyss Heart, princess of Wondertropolis, is forced to make a new life in Victorian London when her Aunt Redd stages a coup, killing her mother, Queen Genevieve.
  • Dodge Anders is Alyss' friend and sees his father murdered by the Cat before fleeing to become a feared soldier with the Alyssians.
  • Maddigan Hatter is the head of the Millinery, Wonderland's Secret Service. Devoted to the well-being of the royal family, he searches 19th century Earth for Alyss.
  • The Cat is a vicious assassin, able to switch between cat and human form, fiercely loyal to Redd Heart.
  • The Caterpillars are Wonderland's oracles, living in the Mushroom Valley. They tend to utter cryptic messages before disappearing in a haze of hookah smoke.

Synopsis:

Princess Alyss Heart flees to 19th-Century England when her aunt stages a palace coup in their home of Wondertropolis, killing Alyss' parents the King & Queen. Stranded in Victorian London, she tells her tragic story to the Rev. Dodgson, only to be appalled to discover that he's turned it into a whimsical children's fantasy. Meanwhile royal bodyguard Maddigan Hatter is frantically searching the world for Alyss but the years pass and Redd Heart, armed like all the royal family with tremendous powers of Imagination, tightens her control over Wondertropolis and the all-important Heart Crystal. A tiny remnant remains loyal to the Heart family, forming the Alyssians in hiding and preparing for the day when Alyss can return to lead them against Redd.

Notes:

In the film world, it's common to produce a remake of a book, a musical, or an existing film. A director has the choice of settings, of actors, of dialogue and can stamp a personal style without obscuring the film's origins. The author of a book has fewer possibilities: it would look odd — plagiaristic, even — for someone to write a book called, say, “Pride & Prejudice” with a new interpretation of that classic Jane Austen. Instead, an author might produce a book with a different title but in clear hommage to an existing work; or write a sequel to a classic or modern classic (as has recently been done with the Return to the Hundred-Acre Wood and the Hitchhiker's sequel And Another Thing). Or the book can be re-imagined, giving a quite different angle on the original story.

That's what Frank Beddor's done here with the Alice in Wonderland stories. The framing conceit is a neat one, worthy of the topsy-turvy Alice stories themselves. When we read Alice, we understand that they are Dodgson/Carroll's interpretation of a young girl's dreamworld. That the playing card and chess characters are a distorted reflection of their real game-piece counterparts. That the Mad Hatter is an absurdly amusing character based on some person of their acquaintance.

But in this retelling, Wonderland is a real place, Alice (her real name “Alyss”) is an exiled princess of the royal Heart family. And the characters in Carrolls' book are themselves distorted reflections of real Wonderlanders. Tweedledum & Tweedledee are in fact the gallant General Doppelganger, able to split himself into two or more people. The Cheshire Cat is a part-human, part-feline assassin. The Mad Hatter is the audacious and skilled Maddigan Hatter, the Royal Bodyguard. And the Red Queen is Alyss' murderous Aunt who staged a coup leaving Alyss an orphan and friendless, lost in our world.

It's a great starting point for the retelling of a familiar story, and the author avoids the trap of trying to be too neat in ticking the boxes of the various characters. There's a Walrus but you'll look in vain for a Carpenter (or any oysters). There is a Caterpillar with a hookah (seven of them, in fact) but no March Hare. The dormouse and the gryphon are edible delicacies. There's a chequerboard plain of ice and volcanic rock but no game of croquet. And the rank-and-file of the soldiery is made up of number cards ruled over by the King, Queen and Jack of the various houses (Clubs, Diamonds, Spades and Hearts) and organised by chess pieces. The Looking-Glass finds its place too, as a means of transport with mildly comical results for the unwary.

The story combines high-tech weaponry with the whimsical and quasi-magical qualities of Imagination. This innate ability is wielded potently by Alyss and the other royals and to a lesser extent by many other Wonderlanders. As we meet the young Alyss on her seventh birthday, inventive Wonderlanders are showing off their devices and ideas, the best of which are transported into the Crystal Heart to become, in a fairy-tale touch reminiscent of J.M.Barrie, ideas and inventions in our own world. The combination of high-tech and magic doesn't always work that well: the descriptions of AD52 Automatic Card Dealers and explosive Generator Orbs seems incongruous in a world where the Secret Service — with almost Pratchettesque humour — is called the Millinery and fights with razor-edged hats.

But the major characters are engaging and keep our interest. Alyss is determined to live up to her parents' standards and not to give into despair or revenge, despite being orphaned and dragged into our world where she must fend for herself. Her powers of imagination give out, at which point her temporary street urchin friends abandon her and she is taken to an orphanage, from which she is adopted by the kindly Liddell family whose friend is the Rev. Dodgson. Hatter Maddigan searches our world for Alyss for thirteen years, crossing every continent until he chances upon a copy of Dodgson's book which takes him to Oxford and then to London just as Alice is about to marry. Dodge Anders, Alyss' lifelong friend never gives up on her either and rescues her just before Redd captures her, returning her to Wonderland to lead the rebel Alyssians in a move in which she channels both Luke & Leia from Star Wars in a final confrontation with Redd.

The overall idea comes off well, despite some weaknesses. The basic premise — that this is the real story behind the Alice books — is enough to appeal to a casual reader and the alien touches by-and-large work. The author carefully avoids too much explanation: Why can Hatter speak English but not French? Why is the butler a walrus? Why does the Pool of Tears transport people to our world? and focuses instead on the actions and decisions taken by the main characters. There is real heroism shown by the dissident Wonderlanders against Aunt Redd's oppressive regime, complete with huge display screens broadcasting propaganda. Even Redd's motives are explored partly although she remains a partial caricature at least.

One small note of possible contention: at a certain point, to avoid difficulties Alyss creates a simalcrum of herself with the power of her Imagination; a real living person. It's established that Imaginative power cannot directly cause death (although it can create, say, an exploding bomb near someone). But it seems that it can create life.

Themes:

  • The power of imagination
  • The real stories behind fictional tales
  • Retelling an old story in a new way

Tuesday 17th November 2009