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Book Review: Alice by Christina Henry

Alice - Christina Henry

In a warren of crumbling buildings and desperate people called the Old City, there stands a hospital with cinderblock walls which echo the screams of the poor souls inside.

In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place. Just a tea party long ago, and long ears, and blood…

Then, one night, a fire at the hospital gives the woman a chance to escape, tumbling out of the hole that imprisoned her, leaving her free to uncover the truth about what happened to her all those years ago.

Only something else has escaped with her. Something dark. Something powerful.

And to find the truth, she will have to track this beast to the very heart of the Old City, where the rabbit waits for his Alice.


Reviewed from ARC provided by Ace Imprints.


Trigger Warning: Memories of child rape and abuse.


Before embarking on this book, you need to start thinking of Alice, less like the Disney version:



And more like American McGee's version:




Although Alice is not based on the American McGee game, it's a good example of the extremely vast difference between what most know of Alice in Wonderland and what this book actually is. This Alice is certainly not a young adult/childrens novel, but in no way does that make this take any less compelling than the original Lewis Carrol version; just a little more darkly serious in it's haunting scenes and messages. It isn't a re-make of the original, but a total re-imagining, in which the characters are literally mad and not just slightly kooky.


Set in a world divided into the haves and have nots, the Old City and the New City; Alice is a inmate in a mental asylum. After a traumatic experience with a man with long white ears called Rabbit, she is dreadfully scarred and no longer the girl her parents once knew. Abandoned to a dirty cell, drugged and unable to remember what has really happened to her, her only friend is the truly unstable Hatcher; who she can only see and talk to, through a mouse hole.


When the mental institution starts to burn, Hatcher saves Alice, but releases a monster that dwells in the basements known as the Jabberwocky.  Fleeing their prison, they are thrust into a city riddled with gang warfare, and the influence of the gang's Bosses; Cheshire, Walrus, Caterpillar and Rabbit, who are trying to take over Old City to claim it as their own. With her scars marking her as the Rabbit's property, Alice has to embark on a quest with Hatcher, to not only save herself from the gang boss that desperately wants her back in his possession, but also to save Old City from the blood thirsty Jabberwocky. Through all this, she begins to remember what was done to her in the past, and her resolve to fight for her freedom thrusts her into a very dark and disturbing underground.


And it really is very dark. It has this true nightmarish feel, where all the horrors are fuzzy around the edges and are filtered in a way that all of the senses are overwhelmed even though it's hazy. It does actually feel as though Henry is writing the novel in the way a nightmare actually feels when it's experienced, rather than presenting it like hard edged horror fantasy. Everything flits, dashes and glimpses. The foreboding figures don't feel menacing because they are holding a knife to your throat, but because of the feeling they radiate as they stalk you. I would say it's probably what a very bad LSD trip feels like (I've never experienced one, but let me know if I'm on the right track!)! Although the writing gets sharper as Alice becomes more compos mentis, which is an exciting device within itself; it still has that trippy feel as the more 'magical' elements of the story line begin to infiltrate. 


The sensory overload is seriously well written; sight, sound, and smell are heightened to the point they become painful. By using very dull, dank surroundings and juxtaposing them with bursts of sensory excitement, it's almost hellish! There was a point in the novel in which Alice describes the cloying smell of over sweet roses, that actually started to make me feel nauseated. The colours, when they appear, pierce like they are melting your retina. Meeting Cheshire was truly a forceful scene, mostly because after the mires of Old City, the extreme deluge of smell and colour is migraine inducing! It's a truly intense experience that makes you happy to go back to the dirty streets, or dark tunnels.


The scenes at the gang bosses lairs are delightfully freakish in their horror. A whorehouse of butterflies, blood thirsty mermaids, overgrown fighting bunnies and rats; a plethora of things to feel in awe of, even though they turn your stomach. This is a book where everybody is a villain, and even the protagonists aren't entirely 'good', so there is a sense of simply cheering for the character that has the best motive for vengeance. Even though it's bizarre and completely unlike reality, it is possibly the most realistic fantasy I've read in the way that nobody is untouched by their circumstances. The city breaks them down, and moulds them into these characters; mostly bloody and mostly broken.


The relationship between Alice and Hatcher is an intriguing one. Hatcher ('Hat'-cher, get it?), is an extremely dangerous man, bordering on psychotic, and has no compunction about violence.  Alice recognises that, however the care he takes of her and how he never gives up fighting for her, is the only sort of love Alice has experienced since her childhood. That push-pull of emotions she feels for him, is incredibly exciting, yet thoroughly disturbing to watch, as even the reader is in two minds about where they want this relationship to head. 


Verdict: It's way out there, incredibly haunting and it's disturbingly dark, but it's

I loved it, and it was un-put-downable. Apparently there is going to be a second book called Red Queen, and I must say, I am chomping at the bit to follow the white rabbit down the hole when it comes out!