L. L. McKinney’s 2018 A Blade So Black is the first volume in her Nightmare-verse urban fantasy series.
Teenage Alice has a full plate: a father struck down by heart disease, an over-protective mother, and a secret life as a monster-hunter.
Rescued from a nightmarish beast by otherworld denizen Addison Hatta, Alice has been recruited to help contain the more predatory inhabitants of Wonderland. Wonderland is powered by human dreams. Some of its inhabitants are fuelled by our nightmares. For reasons unclear, when humans like Alice began to be able to cross over into Wonderland, beings from Wonderland gained the ability to cross the other way. It’s up to people like Alice to keep the worst of Wonderland on their side of the barrier and beings like Hatta and Maddi to provide Alice with the weapons, training, and healing potions she needs to do the job.
There are, of course, some obvious catches to this life choice. For example, even with Maddi’s healing potions and Hatta’s Figment Blades, Alice has had enough close brushes with death in the three months since she was recruited to suggest her long-term prospects are poor. Too bad that her mother is obsessed with keeping Alice safe and alive, which means that Alice has to keep her new vocation a secret from her suspicious, vigilant mother.
Hatta was exiled from Wonderland for reasons he would prefer not to explain. No need! History comes looking for Hatta when the mysterious Black Knight blindsides Alice during one of her forays into Wonderland. The Black Knight uses Alice as a vector for a curse aimed at Hatta, the first step in that mysterious being’s evil scheme. The Black Knight wants a magical artifact known as the Eye; it’s one of the Black Queen’s two great weapons. Its current location is a secret. Alice will have to find it if she is to save Hatta.
Eventually we learn that Hatta was on the wrong side of the civil war that ended with the Black Queen’s defeat. He accepts that he was in the wrong. His current activities are an effort to make up for his sins. In fact, Hatta was not just a supporter of the Black Queen. He was the supporter, the warrior formerly known as the Black Knight. So who exactly has taken up his abandoned cause?
Wonderland takes its form from human dreams. Presumably there’s a reason that Alice in Wonderland features in those dreams and thus in Wonderland.
I wonder if there’s a support group for characters like Alice’s mother and Peter Parker’s Aunt May, well-meaning, protective parental figures whose wards are deliberating flirting with death on a daily basis. Aunt May was mercifully oblivious much of the time. Alice’s mother can sense when something is off. Also she keeps running across evidence that Alice is up to something, evidence that Alice isn’t careful enough to hide.
At the risk of being a buzzkill, it seems to me that Alice’s mother has a point: in this setting, all too many kids die meaningless deaths. Any sensible parent would want to minimize risks. I assume that in some later book Alice’s mother will get to ask Hatta a question readers may have pondered early in this book: what was he thinking when he recruited an emotionally damaged teenager to engage ferocious monsters — over and over again?
He might have been thinking that she was vulnerable, thus recruitable, and that she was, above all, expendable. The book makes it clear that Alice isn’t an into every generation a slayer is born anomaly. There are others like her: the Russian twins Dimitri and Demarcus Tweedlanov, for two. Dee and Dem’s comments make it clear that monster-hunting isn’t a career promising long-well-paid retirements.
Hatta might make a utilitarian greater good for the greatest number argument, but the book gives us little evidence for that. Perhaps he never stopped being a Black Knight at heart.
This is the first novel in a series; it labors under the burden of establishing the setting. Alice’s headlong dashes into danger hit the pause button occasionally, so that someone can infodump on her (and the reader). More finesse in inclueing would have helped. On a similar note, the prose was a little clunky. However … having read hundreds of urban fantasies over the last two decades, I can say that the prose quality is within the norms of the genre. Better than Laurel K. Hamilton’s later work, for sure1.
Alice’s situation is familiar and so are the paces she’s put through. But Alice herself is an engaging character and the stuff mentioned above are all elements that get better with practice.
1: And if we compare it to, say, your standard MilSF, it’s miles better.