After Alice, Gregory Maguire

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I adore Alice in Wonderland. Absolutely fully and completely adore it. It is the most wonderful and imaginative of texts, filled with so much content that you can read it again and again and still never fully reach its depths. From movies, to TV series to books and spin offs, Alice in Wonderland is a never ending joy.

I also quite like Gregory Maguire. His Wicked series is a political rendering of a kids’ story like none I’ve ever read before. I enjoyed that quartet thoroughly and completely, awakening in me a new passion for the Wizard of Oz that I had not felt before.

So, Alice in Wonderland + Gregory Maguire = a seemingly great mix.

And it was good. But it wasn’t great. Not until the end. It seemed like a task to get into the story, which focusses on Lydia, Alice’s sister, Ada, Alice’s friend mentioned briefly in the originals, and Miss Armstrong, Ada’s ‘nanny’. Ada arrives just in time to fall down the rabbit hole after Alice. Miss Armstrong and Lydia search for their respective charges, often together, and in the process also manage to lose Siam, a young boy of colour supposedly rescued by Mr Winter, and assistant to Darwin. And there we have the setup of a very clearly structured but rather disappointing tale.

Ada

Ada is an interesting character, physically disabled and recently replaced by a younger, sickly brother, as the favoured child of her household. Her father’s role as vicar features heavily in Ada’s understanding of Wonderland and her reactions to others, although the bible is only really overtly mentioned once or twice. There is a consistent suggestion of impropriety between Ada’s father and Miss Armstrong, undermining the strength of the religion, alongside Darwin’s science and the death of Alice’s mother. All in all, there is a rather atheistic feel to the novel, which lends itself to a sense of hopelessness. Ada, however, emerges as the hero who rescues Alice from death. The Jabberwok, the most feared creature in all of Wonderland, is Ada’s metal corset, used to straighten her spine from its deformity. She shed it in the fall to Wonderland (which she debates regularly, may well be hell as it is so far below the surface) and it returns with a mind of its own in the feared form of a Jabberwok. Whilst Ada is initially portrayed as an unimaginative, clingy and needy child, her responses to Wonderland show the depth of her acceptance of what is put before her, and she shows no surprise at the return of her corset but rather defeats the Jabberwok by putting it back on. She is the faithful sidekick, the real hero of the piece, one who understands Wonderland better than Alice herself, as Ada does not expect anything to make sense.

Lydia

Uncovering Lydia’s character was an almost impossible task – a young girl caught between childhood and womanhood, who has lost her mother, has an emotionally absent father and a wandering sister. You feel great sympathy for Lydia as she seeks the affections of Mr Winter, but also that maternal frustration at her that she doesn’t understand the way the world works. You pity and admire Lydia, for her loss and what she has gained through it. Whilst her selfishness could be interpreted as deplorable, I believe it is rather an accurate representation of the female teenage struggle to find your place in the world. Miss Armstrong declares that Lydia ‘you are cruel, then you are kind and then you are cruel beyond compare. I do not understand you, but there is no time to try’.  (p191).  In that single sentence, Lydia’s struggles and the struggles of all teenagers are summed up; they do not know their own identity, they flit between cruelness and kindness to see which one works, and no one seems able or willing to take the time to work through this with them. Perhaps if Lydia’s mother was alive, her struggle would not be so intense.

The imagery of the Jabberwok as Ada’s corset is what saves this tale from total disaster. Similarly to Ursula LeQuinn’s Earthsea series, the fearsome thing that Ada runs from is actually a well known and recognised part of herself. It is not the unknown that we fear, but the seemingly inevitable future we see for ourselves.

Maguire sticks quite truly to Carroll’s original Wonderland, reusing the same characters and language (the caterpillar starts with ‘whooooo are you?). Carroll had already created a dark and deeply political underworld, so unlike the Wizard of Oz, there was not much more confusion or intrigue to be made. What Maguire does exceptionally well is to make sure that nothing makes sense. Perhaps that is why I don’t feel like I read a great book, just a good one. Because there seems no purpose, no goal in it. But isn’t that the point of Wonderland? There is no end goal, only Wonderland itself.

I am glad I discovered and read After Alice. It has engaged my brain again with the concept that the worlds we think we know and love are far from as simple as we imagine. I liked Ada, she was kind and sensible in a senseless and horrid world and she is a realistic heroine that perhaps those who are not standard ‘beauty’ of Alice can aspire to.

The Tearling Trilogy, Erika Johansen

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It’s been over a year since I set up this site with the idea to record and review all the books I read, as well as keep you updated on the things that I get up to exercise-wise. Sadly, for me this hasn’t been an easy year. I’ve been suffering with quite severe depression and anxiety, and there have been some personal upsets as well. Not all is bad, I now have a gorgeous boyfriend who shares my faith in Christ, and that is a wonderful thing. I am working as a children’s worker in my local church as well as doing part time work at McDonald’s – well, a girl’s gotta eat! But it’s been a while since I really sat down and read properly and thought afterwards ‘yes, it’s time to start writing again’. The Tearling series by Erika Johansen was just the motivation I needed.

Synopsis

Only 2 of the 3 intended books in this trilogy have been released so far. The first one, The Queen of the Tearling, follows Kelsea, the heir to a throne held by the regent, her uncle, as she was picked up by the Queen’s Guard and escorted to New London – the capitol of the Tearling. She is expected to be assassinated on her first night in the castle, but that is the least of Kelsea’s worries, as she seems to know nothing of her lineage, her purpose or her kingdom.

The second book, The Invasion of the Tearling, follows the consequences of Kelsea’s actions: their neighboring kingdom, infuriated bu Kelsea’s refusal to pay a human tax and led by the cruel and heartless Red Queen, begins to invade the Tearling, while a dark power grows inside Kelsea. Will Kelsea be able to stop the invasion, and at what cost to herself?

Review (caution! spoilers!)

Johansen really opens up the standard ‘fantasy’ genre to new and fascinating interpretation, brushing alongside some serious issues as she does so.

The Tearling seems at first to be a mystical land, filled with magic and old kings and queens and nobles at war with each other. It isn’t until the discovery of the name of the capitol – New London – and later references in the first book to authors such as ‘Rowling’ that you first start to realise that this is not some fantastical place with no relation to our world but rather a futuristic, often pessimistic, view of a world re-started. The biblical connotations of the world ‘pre-crossing’ harken back to Noah, and indeed the character of William Tear, slightly mad but hugely charismatic, is an interesting interpretation of how Noah’s contemporaries must have viewed him. The crossing itself, made over water by ships to drive home the comparison, shows an escape from a cursed and evilly led world into a ‘better world’, where all technology and weapons have been disposed of. Sadly, the medical ship sunk, leaving the pioneers with no medical supplies and no doctors. But this mix of an ancient feeling mystical world, paired with an ancestry from a futuristic earth, makes for a fascinating atmosphere. I found that it was easier to relate to, appreciate and understand the characters as I knew the world they came from so well.

The continual questioning of identity – who is Kelsea? who is Lily? who is Kelsea’s father? who is the Red Queen?- provides an intriguing level of detective work within fantasy structure. Small hints are given here and there, and these become especially evident in the second book (although I STILL don’t know who Kelsea’s father is and THAT is infuriating!!!!). For those who love a good mystery, each novel ends with enough unanswered questions that you are desperate to read the next one, whilst giving you enough clues and guides to come to your own conclusions – whether they’re correct or not is yet to be seen, in some cases. The relationships between Kelsea and Lily, Lily and the Red Queen and Kelsea and the Red Queen develop exponentially through the second novel, sometimes too fast. The sense of desperation to rush through Lily’s story so it is concluded by the end of the novel is a little frustrating – the flashbacks could have done with being started in book 1 OR finished in book 3. I felt this especially towards the end of the second novel when large chunks of the journey were missed out as Kelsea faced her own war, and this is definitely to the detriment of the story.

Johansen raises several deep seated and concerning issues: how important is a girl’s desire to be beautiful; if a child’s desire to be noticed is denied, what damage can it do; where do we draw the line for self harm; do relationships have to be serious to be sexual; does love impede ability; are those we perceive as evil truly evil and does our past truly define us? These and many other questions are explored through several of the key characters – Mace, Pen, Kelsea, the Red Queen, Thorne and Brenna, just to name a few. I only really realised the depth of these issues on reflection on the story line. They don’t stand out obtrusively or envelope novel and reader alike. Instead they are interwoven into the text with skill and realism, which leads us to the greatest strength of the series.

Every character, whether minor or prominent, is real. There is no airbrushing, no overriding ‘goodness’ or ‘evil’. Kelsea, the heroic protagonist, punishes Thorne, the overseer of the human tax, by tearing his body apart with her mind. She continually self harms throughout the second novel, and makes poor and often dangerous decisions. A good friend and confident goes missing, and she doesn’t even notice. Conversely, the Red Queen, the antagonist, grieves the death of a loved servant who she hand picked to save from a pit of slaves. The Red Queen has a relateable back story – the bastard child ignored and betrayed, eventually led to find the love she desired from darker sources. She inspires trust, albeit through fear, in her associates, whereas Kelsea drives even the Mace to criticise her decisions, and there were moments where I really didn’t like her. The lines seem clear: Kelsea = good; Red Queen = bad. But everything is grey. This is what makes the Tearling novels so approachable and realistic and gripping. Everyone is flawed, no one is perfect, and everyone feels so real it’s as if you can reach out and touch them.

Johansen certainly knows how to write a cliff hanger, and if you’re like me and struggle with keeping secrets and not knowing everything, then the wait until the release of the third novel will be almost unbearable! But it’s worth it for the pure joy that comes from reading something innovative, new and flawed. I, for one, cannot wait till November!