Monday, December 23, 2013

Splintered (A. G. Howard)

I cannot resist the allure of fairy tales. Fortunately/unfortunately, the trend is very popular right now; fortunately because it provides me with a lot of material to explore but unfortunately because a sizable portion of it is, frankly, not good.

I know Alice in Wonderland isn't a fairy tale, but it's fairy-tale-esque and is often reinterpreted, so I include it in this category (see also The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). I am a big fan of Lewis Carroll's original books and I get very defensive of them; I hate when people swear that the book was written after an acid trip (LSD wasn't created until 1937 and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is from 1865), trying to cite the hookah-smoking caterpillar as evidence of something drug-fueled and insane, because I think if that's all you get from the book, then you've missed the point: that it's a funny, relentlessly punny story.

So imagine my displeasure every time I encounter a reworking of the trippy fantasy that focuses only on how bizarre and twisted a place Wonderland is. There is this cultural desire to tell stories about returning to Wonderland to find it a dark, threatening place: The Looking Glass Wars, the 2010 Tim Burton film, the 2009 Syfy miniseries, and American McGee's video games are all examples. I quickly get tired of these versions. I would argue any day that The Phantom Tollbooth is a better retelling of Alice than anything out there because it manages to capture the spirit of wacky, pun-heavy humor that I value so much in the originals.

Despite all of my reservations, I gave Splintered a shot. This time, we're with the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the girl who served as inspiration for Lewis Carroll when he wrote his quirky stories. The woman descendants of Alice are cursed: they hear plants and bugs whispering to them all the time. Alyssa (our narrator) has been hearing bugs and plants whispering to her for awhile and uses bugs to make bizarre but beautiful art. Her mother is locked in the asylum after an incident where she attacked her daughter in a fit of madness.

Alyssa is in denial about what she can hear for fear it will make her crazy. But after a visit gone wrong with her mother, she realizes that everything she knows about her abilities and Wonderland are true and that she must venture back to the place where her great-grandmother first adventured to break her family's curse. She takes along her dreamy alternapunk friend, Jeb, and off they go down the rabbit hole, where they meet up with Morpheus, Alyssa's dreamguide to Wonderland when she was a child. Once back in the mystical other world, Alyssa finds out that she must depose the current queen, Grenadine, who ousted the original Red Queen that ruled when Alice made her journey.

I'm very torn about Splintered. There are moments where I feel like the original spirit of Carroll is honored (part of Alyssa's quest to depose Grenadine is to "hold an ocean in the palm of her hand", which she does by sucking up Alice's original pool of tears with a sponge) and those moments are delightful. These are just glimmers, but they were frequent enough to sustain me.

But that leaves the rest of the book. What don't I like? There is an element of "look how twisted everything is" and of course it annoyed me. But even more annoying is the romantic aspect of the novel--Alyssa and Jeb have this weird, irritating half-romance that seems a little ridiculous; it only gets worse when Morpheus (by far the worst character in the book) shows up, because of course that means we need to have a love triangle. Predictably, I'm also put off by Howard's focus on how alt-punk Alyssa and Jeb are--Jeb has a labret piercing, for example, and Alyssa has dreadlocks and they both use skateboards and Jeb paints the pictures of gothic fairies you see in weird hippie stores. It was just a little too much for me and I felt like Howard was trying to use that "scene" as a way to define and explain her characters. A rather weak tool.

This book is first in a series, but I don't think I'll follow it. The book features a major twist near the end and I got a little lost trying to follow the author's narrative. It's not a particularly interesting twist, either, and it ultimately left me disappointed with the direction of the story. Oh well. I"m not in charge, am I? It's an interesting book, and the teens who are still deeply entrenched in YA mindset will probably get a thrill out of it, but I have to say "meh".

My rating: 3/5
Splintered on Goodreads
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