Fairy tale retellings have become a mainstay in the modern world of literature. You get to take an established universe and work in a new story from someone’s perspective that you haven’t seen before and, as an avid writer of fanfiction, it’s a section of fiction that I’m fond of. Most of it ends up being something dark and gritty and The Looking Glass Wars fits in that category to a tee.
When Alyss Heart, heir to the Wonderland throne, must flee Wonderland to escape her murderous aunt Redd, she finds herself lost and alone in Victorian London. Her identity is stripped from her and she becomes a normal girl of the time period while Redd is left unopposed to rule with an iron fist. Fortunately, Alyss is gone, but not forgotten. Her Royal Bodyguard Hatter Madigan goes searching through every corner of our world to find the lost princess and return her to Wonderland so she may eventually battle Redd for her rightful place as the Queen of Hearts.
And so goes the tale of The Looking Glass Wars. A tale that pushes aside Disney’s notion of a curious little blonde girl and leads us on a journey of epic portions in the war for Imagination! The author of this ambitious reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s fantastic tale is Frank Beddor. In addition to being an author he’s also a champion freestyle skier, a film producer, a stuntman, actor, and CEO of Automatic Pictures Production Co. His best known works are There’s Something About Mary and Wicked as a producer, and writing the retelling of Alice in Wonderland with The Looking Glass Wars series.
Wonderland, in this retelling, is a vast kingdom that’s sort of a mirrored version of the Earth we know and love. If our world is one of science, theirs is one of magic (aka imagination in this story). There’s huge deserts and unimaginably complex cities. To travel quickly about Wonderland one takes a mirror expressway; and to travel to our world one can jump into the pool of tears and wind up somewhere on Earth by means of a puddle. After Redd takes over, Wonderland becomes a sinister place with arenas built for Jabberwocky blood sport and deadly machines skulk through the dark alleys of abandoned glass apartments. The magical forests and quaint (if not a bit strange) villages and cottages are replaced with a glittering metropolis: more like that of science-fiction than fantasy, but familiar just the same. It’s a pretty amazing world actually, despite Beddor not quite describing it as much as I would have liked. It’s definitely an interesting take on the Wonderland we all know.
Just as interesting as the take on Wonderland as a landscape is the take on all the characters. The book is set up in such a way that the Alice in Wonderland that we know is a warped version of a little girl’s stories about her kingdom Wonderland. Alice is actually Alyss, the princess and heir of one of the most powerful imaginations in all of Wonderland. The White Rabbit is Alyss’ twitchy tutor Bibwit Harte, and the Mad Hatter is Hatter Madigan, Alyss’ solemn bodyguard with hidden blades in his trademark top hat; and this is just to name a few. Like the landscape of Wonderland, the characters we know have been turned on their heads and an original twist added to them, but once again Beddor’s lack of prose really drags it down as the characters are described as they would be in a screenplay (that is to say with two sentences dedicated to physical description and that’s it) and their dialogue falls flat more often than not.
Ambitious is the best word to sum up The Looking Glass Wars. It’s ambitious in the scope of the story and the originality but in how it was executed it falls short. Beddor might know what needs to be done with a screenplay but a novel is another organism entirely. Unfortunately, Beddor just doesn’t have the chops for novel writing and (in the sequels especially) it shows.
My final thoughts on The Looking Glass Wars are that it’s a decent story. It reads like a screenplay and not a novel in some scenes and the sequels it spawned (Seeing Redd and ArchEnemy) read almost play by play like a screenplay but The Looking Glass Wars is a decent read. The characters all had interesting flairs that were inspired by the original tale (or in the story the tale that was based off of Alyss’ observations on her homeland) and the setting was vast in its originality–I’m still curious about it after having read it quite a while ago so it definitely gets points for that. The prose was a tipping point for me however, it just wasn’t up to snuff and too much like a screenplay during action and dialogue sequences. All in all, The Looking Glass Wars gets a two out of five from me: okay but certainly not as far down the rabbit hole as I would have liked!