If you haven’t read A.G. Howard’s Splintered, let me catch you up in brief: Alyssa Gardner is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland stories. Contrary to what most of the world believes, those stories were based in fact—Wonderland is real—though they only scratch the surface of the dangers, the horrors and, yes, the wonders that can be found there. After surviving it with the help of her then-best-friend-now-boyfriend, Jeb, Alyssa—now the Queen of the Red Court—returned to our world and to her human life, determined to put Wonderland, her netherling* half and her childhood-playmate-turned-teacher-tormentor-and-tempter behind her forever.
Easier said than done.
A year later, Alyssa’s been having visions of a Wonderland ravaged by war, slowly dying because the former Red Queen has escaped her bonds and is on a rampage. Morpheus, her aforementioned childhood playmate (and, yes, the third node on the ubiquitous love triangle) shows up at her Texas high school in an effort to convince her to come back and fix everything…and before too long, Alyssa—and pretty much everyone she cares about—is up to her neck in trouble.
Unhinged has the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor, which will make decision making easy for those who’ve already read the first book: If you liked it, read it, and if you didn’t, don’t. For those of you who haven’t started the series, take the following into consideration:
The world: Howard’s descriptions of Wonderland—Alyssa and Co. don’t actually spend much time there in this installment, but it makes its way into our world—play off Carroll in creative, often unexpected ways, and the result is lush and vivid and dark and dangerous and weirdly attractive. Alyssa’s growing affection for Wonderland and her ultimate acceptance of her birthright is a long, sometimes annoying journey, but the beauty she sees in it—even amid the occasionally macabre and sometimes downright horrifying—is undoubtedly there.
The pacing: Readers have to wade through pages and pages of detailed descriptions of Alyssa’s clothing—lots of tulle, lots of corset tops, lots of stripes, lace, boots and platform shoes and gloves—her artwork, and her ongoing attraction to/annoyance with Morpheus to get to, you know, the plot. As in the first book, the last quarter of the book just whizzes by, but getting through the first three-quarters is a challenge: In a 400-page book, that’s a lot of bloat to suffer through only to reach a (SPOILER!) cliffhanger ending.
Alyssa: She’s the key to everything, sure, the savior and one of those heroines who Doesn’t Know Her Own Strength, and she’s beautiful and her artist-boyfriend’s muse and yadda yadda yadda…but she isn’t perfect. Unfortunately, her flaws—a tendency to not look at the big picture, to make HUGE assumptions, to be a bit of a hypocrite in that she wants more from Jeb than she’s willing/able to give of herself—don’t just make her human, they often make her unpleasant to be around, and sometimes, extremely difficult to root for**.
The boys: Sigh. In the first book, the love story drove me bananas since the guys were both such controlling toolboxes that I wanted to kick them both down a flight of stairs. In this installment, they’re both still irritating, but in different ways: Though I wouldn’t have thought it possible, Morpheus has AMPED UP his Control Freak nature, while Jeb—who has no memory of his previous adventure—has gone Full Sap, and says things like “...only you have the key to open my heart.” (To be fair, he follows that line up with something rueful about how cheesy it was, but I still gagged.)
In comparison with Splintered, though, that last aspect of Unhinged was much improved: There are still Many Issues To Be Had, but they’re thornier, more complex and more interesting—not the least of which is that the pairings actually parallel each other quite well. Rather than lining one suitor up to be the Obvious Reader Favorite, Howard has created them as equal and opposites…so it’s probably not all that surprising that the scenes where the boys snipe and snarl at each other are by far the most entertaining.
*Wonderland resident. Basically, dark faeries.
**As with the Bella-Edward-Jacob triangle, I find myself rooting for Morpheus and Jeb to head off into the sunset together, and just leave Alyssa happily alone, creating blood-based art and funky, new neo-Goth outfits to her heart’s content.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.