The Looking Glass Wars is inspired by Lewis Carroll’s stories, but the premise is that Carroll wrote his books based on the stories of Alyss who is truly from Wonderland but trapped in Victorian London. Familiarity with Carroll’s novels will add to a reader’s enjoyment of The Looking Glass Wars—it’s fun to see how Frank Beddor takes liberties with established characters and plots.
Alyss (later renamed “Alice” by her adopted family on Earth) is the princess of Wonderland. Her world turns upside down on her 7th birthday when her Aunt Redd attacks, killing both her parents. Alyss escapes but finds herself alone in the unfamiliar world of Victorian London. No one there believes her story; slowly she becomes Alice, forgetting about Wonderland, as a way to survive. When she’s returned to Wonderland, she has to learn how to be Alyss again before Redd kills her.
Magic is Imagination—if those with strong Imagination can think of something, they can make it happen. Most of the amazing inventions of our world were actually created in Wonderland. Imagination comes in black and white. Redd, of course, is strong in black Imagination. Alyss must learn to harness her own strong white Imagination. At the beginning of the book, she tends to use it for rather nasty pranks.
Overall I enjoyed this imaginative reinvention, although I’ll admit the violence got to me a bit by the end. This is the first book of a trilogy, and it ends in a way that bring the current story to a close but sets things up for the sequel. My book includes several full color illustrations of the main characters.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Wonderland is ruled by a queen—it’s very much a matriarchy. The neighboring country, on the other hand, is ruled by a king and is very sexist. Women are only for pleasure and bearing children. This king isn’t a major character, but his sexism is memorable.
Violence, Gore, & Death
The violence is frequent and often casual. So many minor characters are killed without a second thought. Redd steps over bodies like you might step over dirty laundry in your bedroom. Some of the violence is graphic. After Redd’s initial attack, the bodies are left to rot. The sights and smells of this are described. When Hatter Madigan gets hit by a bullet, the wound is described pretty graphically.
Dodge, Alyss’ friend, sees his heroic father cut down viciously. Alyss’ father is killed onscreen, but it isn’t terribly graphic. However, the reader knows he’s dead before Alyss and her mother do, which adds to the tragedy as they look forward to his return.
Redd killed her own mother by having mushrooms grow in her mouth and strangle her heart. She later beheads her sister. She cuts down the cat, her personal assassin. He has nine lives, so he gets better, but it’s still painful and pretty graphic.
Alyss’ parents seem wonderful—loving and supportive, wanting the best for their child. Their marriage also seems strong, with Alyss’ father unphased by playing second fiddle to his wife the queen. Dodge has a strong relationship with his father and really looks up to him. After his father’s death, he sneaks back into enemy territory to give his father a decent burial. When Alyss becomes Alice, her adopted parents are rather harsh in convincing her to give up her delusions of Wonderland. Eventually she comes to love them and to really want to please them. Of course, her Aunt Redd is a megalomaniac who viciously kills family for sport—some aspects of sibling rivalry are explored here, though.
Alyss has been through a lot, and eventually she decides that it’s easier to be Alice—she’s bullied until she doubts her own memories, finally accepting that it’s just her imagination. She’s isolated, embarrassed, and eventually beaten up because of her Wonderland memories. She thinks she’s found an ally in Charles Dodgeson (AKA Lewis Carroll) but the book he publishes isn’t her story at all. Eventually she has to overcome her self-doubt. She fails the important test, but she refuses to accept her failure and she keeps going.
Dodge becomes hardened after watching his father die and then losing Alyss. He cares more about harassing Redd and eventually taking his vengeance than he does about much else.
Hatter Madigan becomes single-minded about making up for losing Alyss during Redd’s attack.
There are lots of not-great ways to cope with trauma, although they also aren’t exactly helpful as examples to follow.
Many people are prepared to die for the things they hold dear. In fact, Alyss can’t take her place as Queen of Wonderland until she’s willing to sacrifice her life.
The caterpillars are high in very modern ways. No older reader is going to miss these references even though it isn’t explicitly spelled out.
This is an imaginative and interesting book for older readers (maybe 10 and up), including adults. A familiarity with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass is probably a plus. The amount of gratuitous violence started to wear on me a little, but it’s not much more violent or graphic than many other books for middle grade readers—it just felt more casual than I prefer.
There’s also a graphic novel series, called Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars, which follows the adventures of Hatter Madigan as he searches for Alyss.