You know that feeling you get when the song you always skip on an album turns out to be pure, unadulterated fire? That’s how I felt when I finally read L.L. McKinney’s Nightmare-Verse series which currently stands at two novels: A Blade So Black and it’s follow-up, A Dream So Dark. I initially passed on the story due to what I thought was a “meh” synopsis of yet another Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland remake. But unlike other adaptations, McKinney’s retooling of Lutwidge Dodgson’s (pseudonym, Lewis Carroll) classic tale is not only modern and diverse, but is a truly inspired tale that builds upon the teen heroine prototype set by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Since this is a review of the second book in the Nightmare-Verse series, I’ll try not to give away any major spoilers from the first book.
What if Buffy fell down the rabbit hole instead of Alice?
Swords will shatter ⚔️
Hearts will break ?
Heads will roll ?
— LL McKinney is on hiatus. (@ElleOnWords) November 8, 2019
A Dream So Dark continues the story of Alice Kingston, a 17-year-old Black girl living in Atlanta handling typical blerd girl things: school, Sailor Moon, cosplay, and saving the world from inter-dimensional monsters known as “nightmares” born out of mankind’s collective subconscious lovingly known as Wonderland. You know, queen shit.
In A Blade So Black, the first entry in the series and McKinney’s official debut, Alice discovered the existence of Wonderland after being attacked by Nightmares the night her father died. She was rescued by Addison Hatta, a warrior known as a Dreamwalker charged with guarding the gateway to Wonderland, which just so happens to be in Atlanta. Hatta mentors Alice as his apprentice, helping her discover the ways of the Dreamwalkers and how she fits into the broader world of Wonderland. Over the course of a year, Alice becomes an expert fighter with kickass powers, a set of deadly daggers, and a mission to prevent the magical upheaval threatening Wonderland from ultimately destroying the Earth.
A Dream So Dark picks up immediately after the soul-crushing events in book one (NO SPOILERS!) and the stakes are at an all-time high. Some terrible magic has transformed one of her closest allies into a savage and bloodthirsty enemy, her situationship with her friend/mentor Hatta is…complicated, her schoolwork is suffering, and her mother is putting her foot down after her daughter’s newfound secrecy and school problems become too great.
Like her sister-in-supernatural arms, Buffy, Alice finds both passion and pain in the management of her two worlds. She embraces – sometimes woefully – her sworn duty to protect the innocent, even if it means risking her own life. At the same time, she also finds herself yearning for the normal, balanced life she had before her father’s death. It’s a lot to put on a 17-year-old and Alice comes perilously close to cracking under the pressure. But when the fate of the world literally depends on you, cracking isn’t an option.
One of my favorite aspects of A Dream So Dark is how unapologetically Black it is, while still being accessible to readers of all backgrounds. The story isn’t trying to tell a broader tale about police violence or oppression (though the concepts are integrated into the story), and the Black characters don’t away from their Blackness. Alice’s relationship with her prima donna White BFF Courtney is presented without Alice having to sacrifice who she is to fit in and without Courtney becoming a White savior. Turns of phrase, Southern Black food, the relationship between a Black mother and daughter, and the value of Black fathers are all presented in ways that depict Black people as whole human beings. We’re shown to live, love, laugh, fight, cry, and kick monster ass without being condensed into stereotypes and sidekicks. Imagine that.
So, is A Dream So Dark a worthy sequel to A Blade So Black? In short, yes! It’s action-packed, relevant, and does a fairly good job with pacing. But you’d better get reading quick. Author L.L. McKinney recently confirmed that the next entry in the Nightmare-Verse series, A Crowned So Cursed, will be the epic conclusion!
Both A Blade So Black and A Dream So Dark are available now.
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Next in the series: First there was A BLADE SO BLACK, a stellar debut from @ll_mckinney . Now Alice is back with the sequel A DREAM SO DARK. ** There's a new player in Wonderland — a poet with new powers and questionable motivations. What Alice does next is about confronting the worst in herself and her friends. ** Available September 24, A DREAM SO DARK looks fantastic. That cover!! ???? #BNPLit #Bookstagram #blackspeculativefiction #adreamsodark
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