Review of the Day: The Looking Glass Wars
*sigh* And it sounded like such a cool premise too. Ah well. Frank Beddor may be cute enough to get on the Hot Men of Children's Literature list, but unfortunately the so-so nature of the book disqualifies him. Pity.
When I first heard about the premise of this book my initial reaction was one of shock. A book in which people can learn the "truth" about Alice's Wonderland? What a great idea! And my goodness what an obvious one as well. You may not know it, but there are tons and tons of books out there, both for children and for adults, that talk about the "real" land of Oz. Everything from "Wicked" (both book and musical) to "The Wiz" to who knows what all. So why has nobody ever done the same thing with "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland"? There was a Disney Channel television show that vaguely touched on it, a nasty video game that reinterpreted it, countless pop songs and independent plays that work off of it, but never a children's book that gave us an alternate look into that world. Until now, that is. With glee I plucked Frank Beddor's book out of the hands of my colleagues and got down to reading it. Frank Beddor, a sometimes actor, sometimes stuntman, sometimes freestyle skier (this is all true), sometimes producer of "There's Something About Mary" has now decided to add "writer" to his resume. So how much should we expect from the fella who was John Cusack's skiing stunt double in "Better Off Dead"? As might be expected, not a heck of a whole lot. Beddor has a some interesting ideas, sure. I mean, the book's premise is a very strong one. And his writing is not, on the whole, bad. It just that Beddor hasn't a clue who his audience is or where he wants to go with this series. And it shows.
We're all familiar with the story of "Alice's Adventures In Wonderland". How the author Rev. Charles Dodgson (i.e. Lewis Carroll) was friends with Alice Lydell and conjured up a world of make-believe for her enjoyment. But what if it was the other way around? What if Alice had conjured up the world for Mr. Dodgson? And what if that world had not been an innocent place of joy and wordplay but rather a dangerous land from which she was an exiled queen? Princess Alyss Heart of Wonderland was having a perfectly lovely life when, at the age of seven, her parents were dethroned and her world turned upside down by Alyss's evil Queen Redd. Now Alyss and her bodyguard Hatter Madigan have been thrown into our world with no obvious return to their beloved Wonderland. In our world Alyss is made to believe that everything that happened before was just a dream. Yet in her absence rebellious groups are forming against Redd's new dictatorship and they just need one thing: Princess Alyss must come home and take her rightful place as queen.
Cute premise. But the book, for all that it invokes Wonderland, is actually far more interested in war, battles, and strategy than the more detailed aspects of the land. You get to see Wonderland in its purest state for a brief chapter or two before the book erupts and the chance to enjoy this familiar-but-not-familiar land is gone. In interviews Beddor has said that as a kid he saw Lewis Carroll's books as "a girl's book". Obviously he has attempted to rectify the situation. People who go into "The Looking Glass Wars" expecting Carroll's wit, whimsy, or ability to play with words are going to be sorely disappointed. Beddor isn't afraid to display his contempt for Carroll's original creation right from the start as well. In this book Charles Dodgson is a weak-willed wimp of a man who's more interested in creating light-hearted fantasy when cold bloody reality is what's needed. It's obvious that Beddor couldn't make a joke or a humorous scene if his life depended on it. The closest thing you get is a brief practical joke by Alyss at the beginning of the book on her (I kid you not) albino tutor. From there on it its all blood, guts, death, despair, and predictability.
Beddor also shows a shocking lack of inventiveness when it comes to names. He's perfectly good at creating creepy counterparts to Carroll's original characters, of course. Hatter Madigan is a security version of the Mad Hatter. Redd is the Red Queen. But where does everybody live in this book? Wondertropolis of course. I don't suppose it's much worse than Frank L. Baum naming one of his characters Ozma, but sheesh. Wondertropolis? Turning Alice into Alyss is a nice touch and all but the inclusion of animals called adorable things like "tuttle-birds" and "gwynooks" shows that what Beddor wants to pull off with this book is in direct opposition to the story he took it from. One wonders why he didn't just create a new book entirely from scratch rather than drag Carroll's creation into the mix and risk the wrath of the pro-Carroll multitudes. The fact that I picked up this book to begin with answers my question.
One of the other problems I had with the book involved little seven-year-old Alyss and her best-friend Dodge crushing on one another as kids. At one point the (and I will emphasize this once again) SEVEN-year-old child commands Dodge to dance with her. He does and we read this passage, "He put an arm around Alyss's waist and moved with her in gentle circles. He had never touched the princess before - not like this. She smelled of sweet earth and powder. It was a clean, delicate smell. Did all girls smell like this or only princesses?". I'm now going to remind you yet again that this is a TEN-year-old boy with a SEVEN-year-old girl. Ten-year-old boys, with very few exceptions, do not like girls. And if they do like girls, they certainly do not like seven-year-old girls. And if they do like seven-year-old girls (and here we're getting into tricky territory) then they certainly do not go all wobbly when they touch them. Can't help but get a little sickened by the above passage? Join the club. And apparently Alyss's crush as a seven-year-old lasts good and strong until she's twenty-years-old. Uh-huh.
NOT that the book isn't amusing at times. There's enough fighting in here to satiate even the most bloodthirsty of readers. Fans of Garth Nix or those kids who lament that J.R.R. Tolkien just wasn't gory enough may find a kindred spirit in Beddor. The thing is, he makes the very odd choice of allowing Alice to grow into a twenty-year-old hottie. This sort of makes any future installments in the proposed trilogy difficult. And if Beddor is trying to aim this at teen audiences then he's picked the wrong publisher. I did like that Beddor did his homework and included some factual information about the real Alice Liddell in between his own fantasy. In some ways his mixing of myth and this new reality is rather well done. I liked the use of the Pool of Tears and how Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee had becomes generals. But Beddor also spots his text with slang like, "Duh" and he obviously rips off the whole hero-sees-dead-parents-in-a-mirror idea from the first Harry Potter book. For every fun and original moment in this book there's forty problems on the next page. To top it all off, the minute that you hear that Alyss must go through the Looking Glass Maze to become a queen, you know exactly how the book is going to end. So much for the element of surprise.
Beddor has his finger in as many different pies as possible. He wants video games and graphic novels and roller coasters and who knows what-all to tie-in to his beloved new world. You can't blame the guy, but you also can't help but remember other darlings of the media who had similar dreams smashed in front of them (paging Clive Barker's, "Abarat"...). In Germany this book has been published for adults. In the UK it was published for 10-14 year-olds. Here it will be thrown at children. I can't possibly predict the kind of reception the book will get from kids. I suspect, however, that many will be bored or confused by it while others lap it up like it was cream. It's fine for what it is, but do not expect a great deal of creativity in its creation. It's just nothing to crow about.