A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney – A Black Retelling of Alice in Wonderland and the Struggles of Being a Teen

Text: A Blade So Black, L.L. McKinney. Image: A Black teen with natural hair, holding a dagger in both hands, wearing a red jacket.
Blurb:

The first time the Nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she’s trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.

Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job. But when Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.

CW’s review:

I was pleasantly surprised by A Blade So Black, and I had so much fun reading this book! A Blade So Black is a brilliant retelling of Alice in Wonderland led by a Black-American teen, and is about the struggles of straddling the responsibilities of two worlds, protecting and doing your best for the people that you love, and the pressure of being a heroine with immense responsibility.

A SPLENDID AND DIVERSE REIMAGINING OF ALICE IN WONDERLAND

I adore retellings, especially ones that take older stories and give them a modern spin from the perspective of a marginalised teen. Alice is a Black teen and a Dreamwalker, a warrior trained to slay the wicked monsters of Wonderland that feed on humans’ negative emotions and protect the Veil, the bridge between Wonderland and Alice’s home. In A Black So Black, McKinney takes the quirky and strange (and weird fixation on drug use?) story of Alice in Wonderland and reimagines a Wonderland that is filled with forces of darkness, wickedness, and monsters, as well as protectors of the land and light.

If you are familiar with the characters in Alice in Wonderland, then you may enjoy the references and reimaginings of different characters. For instance, rather than the Mad Hatter, in his place is Addison Hatta, Alice’s mentor and love interest who coaches humans on how to be Dreamwalkers. Maddi, the mysterious and quirky bartender is a rendition of The Dormouse – and I loved Maddi’s character development; she was such a delight. You’ll also find that the worldbuilding in A Blade So Black ventures into mythos surrounding the Queens, their Knights, and the Vorpal Blade. There were also some welcome additions to the characters, and I particularly enjoyed the range of wonderful female characters in this book – and there’s even the sweetest f/f relationship that I adored.

A RELATABLE STORY ABOUT BEING A TEEN WITH GREAT RESPONSIBILITY

One of the best things about A Blade So Black is that I found it so relatable, even with the added element of fantasy and Alice being a monster slayer. I enjoyed reading Alice’s hero narrative, about how she grapples with the typical heroic stuff – like slaying monsters and saving people – but I really liked the emotional element to it. Specifically, I really connected with what was at stake for Alice, particularly when she has to endure and navigate dangerous situations (such as venturing into Wonderland to save someone she care about). Alice’s growth as a character, especially one that is a teen and feels the weight of all her choices and responsibilities on her shoulder, was engaging, interesting, and made me feel invested in her story.

What I appreciated about this story is that it doesn’t treat being a teen as a small feat. Rather, McKinney presents Alice, a Black-American teen, who not only has responsibilities to Wonderland and the human worlbd as a Dreamwalker and protector of people in Wonderland, but also has responsibilities as a daughter to her single mother, to her best friend, and as a teen who goes through school and navigates life. Although A Blade So Black is about her experience as a Dreamwalker and some of her adventures into Wonderland (and there are some pretty compelling action scenes as well!), I believe that this story is more about what it’s like being a teen and having responsibilities to others – and what happens when you are torn between two worlds.

COMPLEX RELATIONSHIPS & THE PRESSURES AND RESPONSIBILITY OF DOING RIGHT

One of the highlights of the book is that it explored how the relationships in our life can be messy, complicated, are tested, but ultimately loving and held together by strong and meaningful bonds. A significant part of the book is dedicated to Alice’s tenuous relationship with her mother. I enjoyed the complex relationship and dynamic between mother and daughter, how it was messy and filled with tough love, but it was a relationship anchored in Alice’s mother’s own duty as a mother and protector of her daughter, and how her strictness was driven by fear following the death of a Black teen the same age as Alice (which also offered the opportunity for discourse around how Black parents have to do more to protect their children). Furthermore, Alice has to balance her duty and role as a daughter to her mother with her responsibilities as a Dreamwalker, and I liked how that conflict drove the story.

Beyond dyadic relationships, an important theme underlying A Blade So Black is about endeavouring to do what is right – but also the immense pressure of doing right and determining what ‘right’ may be. In addition to her multiple responsibilities, Alice is led by an innate sense of duty, justice, and doing the right thing. Although this sense often leads her to try and juggle everything – only to feel caught between two worlds, I strongly related to the conflict that Alice felt. If I had to make the choices that Alice made, I would have struggled – and it’s refreshing to read about a character who felt torn about two important things with no clear answer of what she ought to have chosen.

MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED

Maybe A Blade So Black isn’t the action-packed story that many people expected, but I’m glad that this story was more than just an action-driven story. Like Alice’s character, A Blade So Black has a tough exterior that is all fights and actions and a little bit of life-endangering battles, at its heart, the story is about personal stakes, relationships, and is deeply rooted in Alice’s perspective and experience as a Black teen – which I absolutely loved and appreciated. Definitely recommended for teens who want to feel seen in their struggles, and for readers who love an awesome Black heroine.

Goodreads | Book Depository | My short review on Goodreads


Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A Black teen who protects the boundary between Wonderland and her home has to venture to Wonderland to save the person she cares about.

Perfect for: Readers who love retellings; readers looking for wonderful Black protagonists; readers who enjoy reading about teen experiences with a fantastical element.

Think twice if: You are looking for something that is filled with action or are expecting a story set entirely in Wonderland.

Genre: young adult urban fantasy, retelling

Trigger/content warning: death of parent, death of loved one, fantasy violence, kidnapping.


Let’s discuss!

I love a good retelling and I think A Blade So Black is such a timely and relatable book, and I’m glad this book exists for teens, especially Black teens! I cannot wait to read the sequel, A Dream So Dark, and I am looking forward to seeing where McKinney takes the story next. 💛

  • Have you read A Blade So Black? What did you think?
  • What are some of your favourite diverse retellings?
  • What was the last book that you read where you really related to the character?

2 thoughts on “A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney – A Black Retelling of Alice in Wonderland and the Struggles of Being a Teen

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