Book Review: A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

The day Alice Kingston’s father died, she was attacked by her first Nightmare: a terrifying beast from Wonderland born from curdled human dreams. Alice is rescued by Addison Hatta, a handsome and mysterious exile from the world of Wonderland. It turns out humans don’t just create the Nightmares–they’re the only ones capable of killing them, too. With Hatta’s help, Alice becomes a badass Nightmare-killing warrior in Wonderland on top of her normal life as a Black teen in Atlanta. But just when Alice gets sick of monster fighting and decides to retire her magic Figment blades forever, a terrifying enemy who calls himself the Black Knight resurfaces to poison Hatta and threaten all of Wonderland with his twisted Vorpal blade. If Alice wants to save the lives of her Wonderlandian friends, she’ll have to go deeper into Wonderland than ever before…even if it means risking the lives of the ones she loves back in Atlanta, too.

cover description:  a Black girl with an afro and badass red leather jacket stands in the middle of a spade shape filled with roses. she looks ready to attack.

A Blade So Black is a wildly original paranormal action/adventure/romance, full of memorable characters and seriously smart world-building. There’s a fair bit of confusing info-dumping and time-jumping, and the romance was decidedly *shrug emoji*, but L.L. McKinney’s brilliant vision always shone through the lackluster parts and kept me turning the pages.

Let’s talk about the stuff I loved first: starting with Alice, Alice, Alice, and more Alice. Alice is an incredible heroine, so distinctive and believable I feel like I would recognize her instantly if we bumped into each other on the street. She’s badass and wise-cracking but has a vulnerable streak that goes much deeper than just “she’s clumsy” or “she’s beautiful but doesn’t know it yet.” After her father’s death in the opening pages of the book, Alice feels even more responsibility to be a good kid for her grieving mom–and when another young Black girl, Brionne, is killed in their neighborhood, the stakes for her adventures in Wonderland become even higher. Alice has to come home for her mom, but she also has to show up for her Wonderland friends. That tension was so real and painful and far more compelling to me than the romance (more on that in a minute).

McKinney’s Wonderland is wonderfully worthy of her Alice. I don’t know much about Lewis Carroll’s original work, but even I could pick up on the winking references McKinney incorporated into her names and lore: Addison Hatta (the Mad Hatter), Chess (the Cheshire Cat), Dimitri and Demarcus Tweedlanov (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), and many more. McKinney backs up the clever references with gorgeous imagery all her own that pulled me completely into her world. I want to see Wonderland’s pink skies and magical castles and Rolling Hills that really move in real life! I also want to see all the Wonderlandians in real life, especially the royal family, whose sparkly, colorful magical girl aesthetic sounded like nothing I’ve ever read about before. I don’t want to see the Vorpal blade and its terrifying corruption powers in real life, but I did get a pleasant thrill from reading about it.

While no one can quite compare to Alice, the supporting characters are all gems, too. Alice’s high school friends Courtney and Chess are funny, scrappy, and easy to root for. Alice’s mom is an all-time great mom character, a loving-but-grieving woman who’s already dealing with the loss of her husband and who’s trying her best not to lose her daughter to the very real dangers a Black teen girl faces, too. I also had a soft spot for Maddi, the Mad to Hatta’s Hatter, a healer-bartender who speaks in riddles like “Sleep now, starshine” and “Only fish flip-flop” unless she takes a special painful potion that allows her to be understood by humans.

The villains are just as good as the heroes, if not better. The Black Knight is scary, charismatic, and just the right amount of inscrutable. I was riveted to every page he appeared on. The bigger story of the Black Queen and her faction is fascinating and I suspect that the snippets of it we get here don’t even scratch the surface of what McKinney has planned for the rest of the series.

Unfortunately, my least favorite character was probably Hatta, the sexy trainer/mentor who makes up one leg of a somewhat underbaked love triangle. Hatta has his moments–I especially loved learning about [big consequential secret I won’t spoil]–but mostly he’s just a generically hot, quippy white British-y guy who is possibly hundreds of years old (??? I was never quite clear on whether or not age is even a concept in time-bending Wonderland) and I just couldn’t bring myself to root for him and Alice when I found her platonic relationships to be much more interesting. Chess makes up the other leg of the love triangle, and while I found him more compelling as a love interest than Hatta, his chemistry with Alice still read more friendly than boyfriendly to me.

The big thing I didn’t love? The pacing, which is as precarious as the Mad Hatter’s tall stack of teacups. The book starts on the day Alice’s father dies in the hospital, then jumps into a training montage, then into her first trip to Wonderland, and then to the next year, when Alice has already made the decision to retire. It’s too much, too fast, and doesn’t so much lay the groundwork for what follows as plop a whole house down, then ask you to ignore that house in favor of a whole other neighborhood. Luckily that “neighborhood” (the whole Black Knight plotline) is awesome, but I would have been more invested in the book if we’d started there in the first place and flashed back for the backstory. It’s the rare case where telling the story chronologically actually made it harder to follow.

After that initial info dump, the stakes get raised and the pace picks up, but there are still some weird diversions that don’t go anywhere, at least not within the confines of A Blade So Black. The constant zig-zagging between Wonderland and real-world Atlanta means a lot of listless travel sequences, a lot of trivial problem-solving that doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the overall story, and some abrupt tonal shifts that didn’t work for me. I wished Alice would have stayed in either Atlanta or in Wonderland for long enough at a time that I could catch my breath in each. She may be a tough, wiry, super-fit fighter who can turn on a dime, but I’m definitely not.

A Blade So Black ends on a vicious cliffhanger, one that didn’t quite capture me but definitely upped the ante for a sequel. I probably won’t rush to read the next books in the series (A Dream So Dark and A Crown So Cursed), but I’m invested enough in the characters that I’m sure I’ll return to the Nightmare-Verse eventually. (And whatever happened to the Black Queen’s daughter Odette, anyway? I imagine her disappearance is the key to a whole lot of things going wrong in Wonderland right now…and the parallels to the relationship between Alice and her mom are definitely intriguing.)

A Blade So Black is the kind of book that tests the limits of a star rating for me. My reading experience was a solid three stars, but I think someone who really loves this sub-genre could easily mark it four or five. I give McKinney’s sheer imagination five stars, and the character of Alice another five stars at least. I highly recommend this series to anyone looking for their next paranormal fix, especially if you’re sick of the bloodless, pining, almost uniformly white heroines who have flooded the market for decades. In that landscape, A Blade So Black is a breath of fresh, sugary-scented Wonderland air. ★★★☆☆

A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

Originally published in September 2018 by Square Fish (Macmillan)

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I received my copy of A Blade So Black as a personal gift and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.