Alice in Wonderland retold with Alice as a patient in an asylum. It's an intriguing premise, and reminiscent of American McGee's Alice (one of the best platformer action games ever made, I should add), but completely different. In fact, a better comparison would be Alan Moore's retelling of Alice's story in Lost Girls, since the story is more about taking the elements of Alice in Wonderland and using them as elements in a Victorian-era urban fantasy story. It's tempting to write about how Henry creates those elements, but part of what makes the book work so well is discovering them for yourself.
Alice was the second-place winner of the Goodreads Choice Award for horror this year (losing out to Dean Koontz, which in my mind makes it the first-place winner), which is interesting, since I don't view the book as horror. It has some horrible moments, but the story is really more of an urban fantasy, using the story of Alice as a lattice from which to hang the story. As a horror novel, though, it still hearkens back to the same problem I'm beginning to see in horror in general -- its misogyny.
Alice was written by a woman, and has a female protagonist, so it's hard to say that the book comes across as misogynistic, but the protagonist has a male companion who helps her through some of the worst parts of the story, and the horrible things that take place in this novel are those that are done to women by men. Those women are just objects to be used to those men, and though Alice works to free those women, it still boils down to the horror being about women in peril. To Henry's credit, the book is of a much higher class than standard horror (and is nothing compared to how Bentley Little uses his female characters), but it's something I'm becoming more aware of as I read more and more horror that was a part of (or influenced by) the 1980s horror boom.
The book is dark, grim, and dismal, which is just perfect when it comes to telling a fairy tale. There are touches of hope and promise in the story, but a lot of what happens is heartless and cruel. Our main characters are above that, but their telling of their experiences seeing those cruelties makes them even more so, since they're seeing them through empathetic eyes. As the saying goes, one can't appreciate the light without experiencing the dark, and Henry takes that adage to heart with this story. It wound up being darker than I expected.
All that could lead you to believe that I didn't like this book, but you'd be wrong. The story works extremely well, and Henry's use of the original Alice story is both clever and brilliant. Her style is very simplified and streamlined, though it doesn't take away any of the effect of her words. The main characters were well-realized and convincing, and even if she didn't develop some of the antagonists to make them complex, their defining traits were memorable and enough to make the reader root against them.
The chapter breaks in this book are interesting. They're not bad, but they're unconventional; instead of Henry breaking the story at a stopping point, she concludes one chapter just as a major scene begins, and then picks it up in the next moment at the start of the next chapter. The lulls in the story tend to take place in the middle of her chapter, and it created an interesting sort of pace for the story, especially when you consider I'm the type of reader who likes to stop reading at the end of a chapter. Here, doing so meant I had to stop reading in the middle of the action.
Fans of urban fantasy and horror should find a lot to enjoy about this book. Fans of retellings of fairy tales will, too, though it takes a different approach than just swapping out the heroes and the villains of the original story. Just be forewarned that it's not a breezy trip from beginning to end; some of the imagery from this novel will linger long after you've finished it.