4 out of 5 stars.
I received an ARC of this work.
I think this is the first Alice in Wonderland rewrite I have ever ended up enjoying. All of the other ones I have read end up trying way to hard to be weird and edgy that they come out on the other side of ridiculous. They read too much like the 2010 film version (the one with Johnny Depp), where you are looking around in confusion, wondering where the original story went and who gave Depp that much makeup. In fairness though, I was never a fan of the original book or Disney cartoon. I found them too over the top to have much of a coherent storyline. Stuff seemed to happen without cause (and now for some reason, a weird poem about a walrus and a carpenter! or a smiling, disappearing cat!). This book, though, is a prequel to the original story, does not feature Alice at all, and instead focuses on how the Queen of Hearts became the head chopping monstrosity we know and fear today.
Dinah is the future Queen of Hearts and could not be more miserable. Her father is a neglectful tyrant who is always pointing out her faults, her tutor is a bit neurotic about time keeping and her younger brother is obsessed with making hats. Her only joys come from the stableboy she secretly loves and her upcoming coronation. With the crown will come some measure of respect and control over her life. She just needs to hang on a couple more months.
Dinah’s world is turned upside down when her father brings home a half-sister for her, shortly before. The new duchess is popular, beautiful and poised, everything Dinah is not. While the rules of Wonderland succession are firm, Dinah still cannot help be jealous and suspicious of this newcomer on the scene.
Besides having a few characters in common, this book has a more grounded storyline than most Alice in Wonderland plots. The Mad Hatter’s obsession with hats comes from mental illness, the white rabbit has a reason for begin time obsessed (the tyrant king REALLY doesn’t like tardiness) and Wonderland actually appears to have a somewhat coherent political and social structure, instead of random nonsense. Even the different suites of cards have different jobs (diamond guard the royal treasure, hearts are elite guards if I remember correctly). The Wonderland Oakes has constructed is actually a lot more interesting and satisfying than the original, just because the characters have motivation and backgrounds.
Dinah is a character you can see evolving into the scary Queen of Hearts, but who is still sympathetic at this stage of her development. She is lonely and scared and isolated. Her father is setting a horrible example for what it means to be a ruler and she has no one to guide her properly. She has no one she can trust and you can tell from the fact that this is a series, that things are going to get even worse before they get better.
This is the first in a series that promises a refreshing look at the background and evolution of the Queen of Hearts. The world building is close enough to the original to be recognizable, but unique enough to be worth exploring. I will definitely be looking out for the next one.