A Dream So Dark by L.L. McKinney

“Sometimes fear lies and tells you you can’t do something when you can do anything.”

A Dream So Dark Cover

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Still reeling from her recent battle (and grounded until she graduates), Alice must abandon her friends to complete her mission: find The Heart and prevent the Red Lady’s rise. But the deeper she ventures into Wonderland, the more topsy-turvy everything becomes. It’s not until she’s at her wits end that she realizes—Wonderland is trying to save her.

There’s a new player on the board; a poet capable of using Nightmares to not only influence the living but raise the dead. This Poet is looking to claim the Black Queen’s power—and Alice’s budding abilities—as their own.

Dreams have never been so dark in Wonderland, and if there is any hope of defeating this mystery poet’s magic, Alice must confront the worst in herself, in the people she loves, and in the very nature of fear itself.

3.5 STARS

CW: loss of a loved one, child death, violence, gore

If A Blade So Black established the dangers Alice is going to have to face down to protect herself and her loved ones, A Dream So Dark starts complicating everything Alice knows, and I am HERE FOR IT.

If you read my review of ABSB, you know that Alice in Wonderland is one of my least favorite retelling bases, and you know that I think L.L. McKinney absolutely knocked it out of the park. If you can make me like Alice in Wonderland, I think you might be able to do just about anything.

And of course, A Dream So Dark delivers on almost everything the first book set up! We’re now dealing with the aftermath of ABSB’s finale, especially in the human world, and it results in a lot of interesting complications for Alice, her mom, Courtney, and the Wonderland folks living on the Atlanta side of things rather than in their home realm. Really, what I loved most about this initially reactionary start was that it forced Alice to decide exactly how she was going to communicate, and how much she was willing to say. Normally, I prefer a highly proactive protagonist, but this was just the right amount of reaction to the previous events (highly emotional, exhausting events, I might add), and it really did wonders for characterizing Alice and the sheer odds she’s up against. Plus, it also took ALLLLL the miscommunication tropes and smashed them to bits in delightful ways. There can still be danger and tension even when characters actively talk to one another, and this book proves it!

A Dream So Dark also introduces a bunch of excellent new characters, like Romi and Haruka, the human/Wonderland mentor duo who guard the Gate in Tokyo, as well as some good good animal friends in the form of Chou and Duma, both of whom I want to give chin scratches and much love to. They’re good Wonderland pets, both of them! So good! And when the tough characters baby talk them, it gives me strength, because ALL PETS deserve to be gently baby talked and pampered.

I think the core strength, though, of ADSD, is that it starts to complicate what we know about Wonderland as a whole, taking us to new locations and examining how some of those locations interface with the real world, AND it starts peeling back some layers on the antagonistic forces. In doing so, it makes Wonderland a bigger, more complex place than ever, tempting the reader deeper and deeper. I was especially enamored with the new information regarding the Black Knight, who has some interesting history with some of the other characters, and has to make some difficult choices as a result.

I also wanted to say that I LOVED the way queerness came through in ADSD. Though no specific labels are used, it’s exceptionally clear that Hatta is bi, another character is likely gay (not naming names since that character’s whole existence is a fun twist tbh), and Alice is bi. In fact, Alice actually gets some of the coolest love interest interactions I’ve ever seen, namely that she catches herself thinking about both male and female characters and getting a little bit nervous because oh dang, they’re cute, and those characters are INTO HER TOO. And yet Alice also has two whole worlds to save, so there’s not exactly time for acting very much on those crushes, mutual though they may be. It feels incredibly realistic to balance the pressure on Alice’s shoulders with these moments of “oh dang they’re cute don’t make a fool of yourself oh no.” Plus, there’s three different characters Alice MIGHT end up with by the end of the series, and I can’t decide which one I like best, in true multishipping fashion.

Honestly, the only thing about ADSD that bugged me was how much of it felt like a fantasy travel expedition. As cool as it was to see new parts of Wonderland and meet new characters living throughout, the pace suffered a little from it, especially when you compare it to the pacing of ABSB. And as a result of that, I can’t help but wonder how on earth ADSD is going to lead into the final book, A Crown So Cursed. Obviously, I know which really big things need to be addressed, but all that time spent traveling and getting beat up by the antagonistic forces left little room for the bits and pieces that will make for a solid transition to the finale, that will help shape the driving forces behind Alice’s choices in ACSC. I have high hopes for ACSC still, but I’m not thrilled with the pacing and transitions in ADSD that are going to take us there.

Overall, though, A Dream So Dark goes deeper down the rabbit hole in brilliant ways, and I had plenty of fun reading it! It’s impossible not to get invested in the characters and the stakes, and even though it slows down compared to the first book, it’s hardly a dull read by any means. It’s fun and vibrant and full of heart, and I recommend it completely!

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