A Blade So Black is author L.L. McKinney’s debut book, and the first of her series by the same name. It was published in 2018 and currently holds a 3.63 on Goodreads.
The first time the Nightmares came, it nearly cost Alice her life. Now she’s trained to battle monstrous creatures in the dark dream realm known as Wonderland with magic weapons and hardcore fighting skills. Yet even warriors have a curfew.
Life in real-world Atlanta isn’t always so simple, as Alice juggles an overprotective mom, a high-maintenance best friend, and a slipping GPA. Keeping the Nightmares at bay is turning into a full-time job. But when Alice’s handsome and mysterious mentor is poisoned, she has to find the antidote by venturing deeper into Wonderland than she’s ever gone before. And she’ll need to use everything she’s learned in both worlds to keep from losing her head . . . literally.
Genres: YA / Urban Fantasy / Horror / Retellings
Format Used: e-Book
Length: 384 pages
My Rating: 2/5
From My Reading Challenge:
- An author’s debut novel
I discovered this book when the author was interviewed about it on the podcast Reading Glasses. In the episode, she described her concept for the book as, “What if Buffy fell down the rabbit hole, instead of Alice?” — I was purchasing my copy before her interview was over, and sending a copy to my friend for her birthday. The author went on to note that it was important to her that the “Buffy” character be black, as she had grown up as a black girl into fantasy, who never really saw characters who looked like her. My friend and I were both really excited for this, but unfortunately, we both felt pretty let down. In short, the book fell flat in a lot of ways. The warning signs came very early on.
The opening was a bit of a mess. The first part of the book felt like an extended prologue. It begins on the night of Alice’s father’s death. In a moment of grief, she is attacked by a monster and saved by Hatta, a Spike/Giles hybrid. He tells her about monsters from Wonderland called Nightmares and about Dreamwalkers; those who fight Nightmares. Sensing something special about her, he takes her under his wing. Then we get launched three months later, wherein she’s training to be a Dreamwalker. She’s doing great…. but then we quickly launch through time again. It’s now been a year, and Alice is starting to regret her decision. Her friends are feeling slighted and her mom is two seconds from grounding her forever. To make matters worse – a black girl from the community was recently killed by police (a lazily handled subplot that feels a bit like pandering) and her mother has become even more overprotective in the aftermath, making it harder to sneak away.
Ok… that’s a lot to cram into Act 1 of a book, and my question is… why? Why not just start a year in? We can learn through context and conversation what that first year was like; it’s not helpful to catapult us through it catching only glimpses. It felt like McKinney had a checklist of superhero origin story tropes that she just went through the motions for.
Another issue I had was the reliance on the reader’s knowledge of Buffy and Wonderland.
There are times when McKinney really leans into the Buffy references, with lines like: “You’re pretty much a black Buffy.” Or, worse: “Dimitri and Demarcus Tweedlanov—Dee and Dem for short—were mirror images of each other: tall, teenage versions of Spike from Buffy. ” Really? Just actually describe them, please! Meanwhile, Alice’s cats are named Lewis and Caroll, and Hatta’s partner, Maddi, speaks in Wonderland riddles. It seemed like MicKinney was just plucking imagery from Wonderland and inserted it, just for the sake of having it there. I think she intended for Wonderland to give her book a visual style, but all it did was bog it down with visuals that were barely being described. That made it tough for me to really bring the story to life in my head. I found myself wondering if she simply had a script in mind, rather than a novel.
As for the characters, the book also fell flat there. The thing about Buffy is that, even when her and her friends were just kids (the early seasons), and even when they were being kind of petulant about kid stuff, they were as witty as the adults who were writing their lines. Plus, they went on to grow and mature from each experience. That’s what Alice and her friends are lacking. They’re kids, and I never forget it. The problem with this is, if you have a YA novel written for teens from the perspective of teens, the characters should set an example of how to be mature. I didn’t feel like the book offered that. There was no real growth, and no real messages to be had.
Safe to say, this book was not what I wanted it to be.
Right tool for the right job in the right hands? Anything is possible.
Who Might Like It
I don’t think I’d recommend this book to anyone in particular, but you might want pick it up if you are just really curious about yet another take on Wonderland. That said, Heartless might be a better choice (see my review here). For your Buffy fix, I highly recommend sticking to the original TV show, the comic book continuation (seasons 8-12), or the 2019 comic book reboot, which I loved (see my review here).
I have implemented a standard rating system to my book reviews:
1 – Story, plot and character development are all poor
2 – Concept is intriguing but execution is sloppy or does not deliver on promises
3 – Story, plot and/or character are interesting but some aspects of the book are problematic and/or not fully developed
4 – Strong story, plot and character development but has little-to-no thoughtful commentary
5 – Strong story, plot and character development along with thoughtful commentary
I give this book a 2. Intriguing concept but fell flat on delivery.