Review: “A Blade So Black” (Nightmare-Verse #1) by L.L. McKinney

Quick review for a quick read. “A Blade So Black” was – overall – a fun retelling/take on Alice in Wonderland overall, though I somewhat use the word “fun” loosely because this book doesn’t pull punches when it comes to brutal scenes of combat.

Then again, what would you expect from Wonderland? Chaos? Yep. Magic? Yep. Deadly enemies and monsters? Most definitely. I’m aware of many takes and expansions on the realm of Wonderland that have described the place in this dangerous vein so it was a welcome form to dive into.

The Alice in this retelling/alternative take has a situation very different than the original heroine of the Lewis Carroll tale. Alice – an unapologetically geeky, loyal, well-intentioned black teen heroine from Atlanta – starts off in a place of power where she’s been training and fighting monsters in Wonderland for a while. Following the death of her father, Alice was attacked by one of the monsters (Dreamwalkers) from the world, and recruited to fight them with the help of Hatta and Maddi among other characters she comes to know. But on the cusp of wanting to retire, Alice finds herself drawn back into Wonderland after a brutal attack from one mysterious figure – The Dark Knight – and a mystery that has her frantically searching for answers to save a friend whom she unwittingly put into harm’s way. Though it doesn’t come without the cost of worrying and having to sideline her friends and family in the real world. Unbeknownst to them, Alice is risking her life – her own head in some cases – to keep them and her home safe.

I liked the personalities of the characters from both real world Atlanta as well as those established in Wonderland. There are many fun ideas as well as real world ties to Alice’s identity and person that I appreciated, particularly as a woman of color reading this book. McKinney does well with putting Alice between a rock and a hard place for the conflict she faces, internally as well as externally. I loved some of the bit references to anime/manga as well (Sailor Moon and some other shoujo manga references were peppered through this book. I caught a number that were both obvious odes as well as those that were a little more subtle – that was fun.)

You may be thinking “I’m sensing a ‘but’ in your comments coming on this book, Rose.”

*sighs* Yeah, to put it simply, there are a few ‘but’s to be had upon reflection here.

The whole time I was reading “A Blade So Black” – as eagerly as I found myself flying through it to see what would happen to both the heroine and her friends/family – I don’t think I was as immersed in the world here as much as I wanted to be. Wonderland, for the construction of place and setting interaction, feels incredibly bare bones in this first book of a series, and that bugged me. It’s a shame because for all the direct references, citations, allusions to the original story in this retelling, it doesn’t feel as intimate as it could be. The whole time reading, I felt fleeting connections to the sense of place – even in the references to Atlanta – despite having a firm connection for Alice’s experiences. Since Wonderland is a classic setting that’s immediately recognizable in the minds of many people – like the Shire is in Lord of the Rings and the like – the journey aspect of it without having attention to the place felt like I couldn’t sink my teeth into Alice experiencing the fullness of this mysterious, dangerous world.

The side-characters are interesting and the villain is intriguing (particularly with his introduction and puppeteer-work of Alice for the main conflict of the novel). Yet I felt they could’ve been built up with even more nuance and depth, particularly for the characters who are directly tied to their original story counterparts (‘Hatta’ for the Mad Hatter, ‘Dee and Dem’ for Tweedledee and Tweedledum, etc.) I don’t want to jump to conclusions too soon on this series since it’s a first book in a trilogy and much of the magic system, world, and journey aspects of this book are still ongoing in construction. It’s interesting but it doesn’t have its feet firmly grounded is probably the best way I can say it, but I’m willing to see where it goes.

The romance was something else that bothered me in reflecting upon the end of the story. It came across as jarring because of how rushed and misplaced it was in certain moments (particularly in the last fourth of this book, there was a scene I had a hard time suspending belief for given the surrounding events). Where the action sequences, peril that Alice faces, and the interpersonal conflicts that Alice has through this story are well-established, the actual emotional connections she’s said to have on the level of the romance is lacking comparatively. I got she had a connection to Hatta, but I didn’t feel it as intensely as the book sold it. There is a love triangle here that’s likely to come to fruition as the series rolls on, but it’s honestly not the most intriguing one I’ve read in a YA series to start out with.

I’ve gone back and forth in determining my rating for this book between 3.5 and 4 stars for the past hour, but having put all my thoughts down and weighing pros/cons, I’m going with my gut on the former.

The best way I can sum up my reaction to “A Blade So Black” – I’m here for it and intrigued for the ideas, quirks, attention to identity, among other aspects, but I’m definitely expecting for it to dig more deeply – to setting, to characters, to content, and not just the action/adventure aspect. I plan on continuing the series to its end, and look forward to the next installment.

Overall score: 3.5/5 stars

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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