A Dream So Dark
by L. L. McKinneyThe second novel in the Nightmare Verse series begins with Alice Kingston being brought back down to Earth after her adventures in Wonderland. After Alice's absences to fight evil, her overprotective mum is keen to ground her for the slightest infraction. But Alice is grief-stricken. With a new Black Knight on the loose, the world of Wonderland is in turmoil. The crisis deepens when her friend Maddi is kidnapped and her small team lose Maddi's expertise with potions.
The story could have done with a bit more recapping at the start, because unless the books are read in quick succession it's somewhat confusing.
The author has a talent for vivid description. "It was like a Better Homes and Gardens magazine had a baby with HGTV, and that baby threw up everywhere", is how she introduces one scene. Soon we move from Alice's difficult normal life to her extraordinary one, where a host of dangers and mysteries await. Their adversary appears able to raise the dead. As chaos and destruction break out, it becomes apparent that someone is summoning creatures and directing knights like puppets. But who is this strange Lady, and why does she want to make everyone suffer?
Some episodes are told from Addison Hatta's point of view, and some are even show from the point of view of one of the first book's villains. This switch in perspective makes these characters seem more sympathetic and the story more nuanced, even though some of the point of view characters are conflicted.
Lots of weirdness ensues. Alice can't even trust her own reflection to show herself, as mirrors hold a particular magic in this universe. Alice's attempts to keep her secret life from the rest of the world is a source of tension, so Alice has to decide who she will continue to lie to and who she can bring into her confidence.
Magical journeys lead Alice to meet new characters Haruka and Romi. They keep the Eastern Gate into Wonderland safe in Japan where they live. The author has imagined an oriental version of Wonderland, so it has different creatures as well as a different style, a bit like stepping between Narnia and Pern. As the tension increases, so do the injuries and deaths. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, A Dream So Dark goes for the jugular and is pretty brutal in parts. It also gets stranger as it goes, "curiouser and curiouser", weaving a complex history of betrayals, loss, and past misdeeds between the characters.
The finale is dramatic, a big showdown that demonstrates what our characters are made of, and what really matters to them. On that level it is satisfying and emotional, although a touch corny. But it doesn't feel like a complete ending, in that there is room for the third book in the trilogy to tie up some of the loose threads. It's a fun, exciting story where objects such as Vorpal swords and figment blades get put through their paces regularly and in earnest. There is some romance, or at least a tangled web of love interests. So I don't think I'm done with the brilliant colours, odd flora and fauna, and upside-down notions of the Nightmare Verse yet.
30th August 2020
Review © Ros Jackson
Source: library ebook.