Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day, all in the morrow betime, and I a maid at your window, to be your valentine!
Here’s the fourth in my FAIRYTALE FANTASY posts!
TO REPEAT from fairytale fantasy post #1: the term “fairy tale” is misleading. What we typically call “fairy tales” are more accurately described as “folk tales,” or “traditional tales,” especially one coming from the oral tradition. I’m also not necessarily posting about the fae, although one of the books does have a strong fae presence. “Fairy”—“Fae”—They are synonyms (of a sort), and tales of the fae are an important fantasy subgenre, but again, I’m not using “fairy” necessarily in that sense. AND I’m not dealing with anything Disney (although I guess I kind of lied about that in post #3).
THE FAIRYTALE FANTASY NOVELS
My two top picks:
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. Based on the Grimms’ fairytale Rumpelstiltskin. Reviewed in post #1.
Redemption in Indigo, by Karen Lord. Based on the Senegalese folktale Ansige the Glutton. Reviewed in post #2.
Other fairytale/folktale fantasy:
She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan. Incorporates Chinese ghost lore. Reviewed in post #3.
Alice, by Christina Henry. Horror-fantasy based on Alice in Wonderland. Reviewed in this post.
Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Based on the French fairy tale Cinderella.
Shadow of the Fox, by Julie Kagawa. Based on Japanese myth and folklore.
For the Wolf, by Hannah Whitten. Based on Little Red Riding Hood? For sure on Beauty and the Beast.
Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse. Influenced by the folklore and mythology of Mesoamerica.
Today’s fairytale fantasy review:
Alice, by Christina Henry
Christina Henry’s horror-fantasy novel was published by Ace Books in 2015. “Christina Henry” is the pen name of an author who has written several fantasy reimaginings of popular older fantasy, including several Alice books. Featuring Henry’s book in this blog series is kind of a stretch, because Alice in Wonderland is not a classic fairy tale and doesn’t come from folkloric origins. The beloved children’s book, which was titled Alice’s Adventures Underground, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was written in 1865 by Charles Dodgson, a Victorian-era English mathematician. Dodgson used a pen name himself: Lewis Carroll. Alice has entered popular culture, though. Even people who have never read it are likely to know the story. It has become a kind of latter-day fairytale.
Admittedly there’s no fairytale or folkloric basis for this book. But there is a fascinating backstory. Dodgson was a shy bachelor whose family friends had a young daughter, Alice Pleasance Liddell. Dodgson and a friend rowed Alice and her two sisters up a river, and during this excursion, Dodgson made up a fanciful story for the girls. Alice wanted a copy, so Dodgson wrote it down for her. Eventually, Dodgson published it as a children’s book, with famous illustrations by John Tenniel.
Fleets of literary critics have worked overtime to analyze this seemingly simple but actually very complex tale. Some have considered the characters to be fantasy versions of Dodgson and people he knew; others write about the puns and wordplay, and especially the mathematical puzzles and concepts that Dodgson inserted into the story. Still others have explored the Freudian aspects of the story. Most acknowledge that Alice changed children’s literature, taking it away from preachy tomes and into the realm of nonsense and fun. This article gives a good quick introduction to the whole Matter of Alice.
Henry’s version of Alice begins with blood and screaming. You know instantly that you’re in the world of horror, but probably not yet that you’re in the world of Alice in Wonderland. Let me backtrack. Yes, you do, because the cover tells you that. But the first chapter places you in a horrifying Victorian madhouse, where Alice is mistreated by the attendants. Aside from them, her only human contact is a fellow patient, Hatcher, an axe-murderer. She has communicated with him for years through a hole between their locked rooms–essentially cells. She soothes him through his most deranged episodes, and he gives her companionship. It’s soon clear that Alice has been locked up as “insane” because of behavior unbecoming a properly brought up young Victorian woman. Things heat up (literally) when the asylum catches fire and Hatcher helps Alice escape into the “Old City.” At that point, the reader realizes that while the setting seems Victorian, the novel takes place in some alt-Victorian dystopia.
Unfortunately, after that promising and intriguing start, the novel goes downhill into a series of mechanically-plotted adventures that slavishly adhere to horror versions of Alice in Wonderland characters and situations. Some of it really has to stretch to fit the Alice tropes. Meanwhile, I was getting annoyed, because I wanted more about Alice the character and her relationship with Hatcher. Oh, well.
Many readers love these books, so don’t take my word for it that this one is somewhat of a disappointment. Here’s a glowing review. And here’s another one. But some think the characterization is thin, the magic not very convincing, and the writing not very developed. Here is one of those. I’m afraid I’m in their camp.
Other readers have reservations about these books for a different reason. Several reviewers think Alice is too full of violence against women. Here’s one of those reviews. I would not put Henry’s novel in this category, myself. Although I never approve of gratuitous violence against women (or anyone), this kind of violence does happen in actual life, and fiction–unless it’s completely sanitized–does deal with the hard parts of life. And should. So if it’s well-written and it honestly confronts the situation it depicts, I don’t care what the content is, or how tough. In addition, part of the horror genre involves body-horror of all types. You may not enjoy horror. I’m not the biggest fan. But well-done horror is its own delight.
Digression: As I say, I don’t mind violence in fantasy IF it is well-done and necessary to story and characterization. That’s a big IF, though. I know one fantasy novel highly regarded by a lot of fantasy readers (Lord Foul’s Bane, if you’re interested) that I just can’t admire–and won’t finish the series. I’m amazed I finished the novel. Even though the novel has some interesting features, the rape in that book is gratuitous, the protagonist unrepentant or not very, and the reader apparently intended to shrug the whole disgusting episode off. Not cool in my book. (Its purple prose also annoys me.) On the other hand, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, while one of the most unpleasant novels I’ve ever read (and studded with some pretty purple prose), is also one of the most brilliant. So there you go. That’s what you need to know about me the reader.
Related works and fantasy-related fictions:
Henry’s Alice is the first book of a series, so there’s more Alice material if you end up liking the novel. I’m not continuing it. Henry has also taken on other well-known children’s classics, such as Peter Pan. Re-imagining literary classics is a whole subgenre, and not just in fantasy. Underneath the fantasy tent, though, many successful novels have taken on similar material. I’m thinking especially of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz‘s Wicked Witch of the West–probably because my next post is about another novel of his.
Alice in Wonderland, as I’ve mentioned, has left its origins to spread out into numerous genres and forms. It has inspired a ballet, a stage play, toys and games and products of all types, and a number of movies (including several. . .shhhh. . . Disney versions, one of them the iconic animated version of 1951–probably the version from which most Americans get their visual impressions of the characters, not the famous Tenniel illustrations).
Alice has been issued as a children’s book with illustrations by many different artists, in many different styles. I find these pretty intriguing. Here are a few: