Saturday, February 11, 2012

Review: "Alice in Deadland" by Mainak Dhar

I love the premise of Mainak Dhar's "Alice in Deadland": It's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," but instead of an innocent British girl lost in a fantastical dream world, it's a hardened teenager caught in the middle of a zombie apocalypse in India.


The opening strikes the perfect balance of introducing what it's like to live in the Deadland while paying tribute to the original "Alice." The titular character, Alice, leaves her sister's side to chase a "Biter" - a zombie, though the book never uses that term - wearing a set of bunny ears as he jumps down a hole in a field. In a world where humans are fighting to keep even small communities safe, rumors of underground Biter nests have circulated, and Alice hopes to find out the truth behind the rumor.

Things don't turn out quite as she planned. Down the rabbit hole, she's captured by the Biters and taken to meet their queen. The queen is convinced that "Alice in Wonderland" (as it's named in the book, and as Lewis Carroll's classic is commonly referred to) is a prophecy and that this Alice is the girl who's going to take the world back from those who ruined it. Alice is, to put it mildly, skeptical. The more Alice learns about what caused the Rising, though, the more she comes to realize that she has no choice but to take a stand.

Lewis Carroll references aside - yes, there is a Hatter! - "Alice in Deadland" is a mostly standard imagining of what the world would look like if zombies took over. After the emergence of a virus that reanimates the dead, world superpowers unleash nuclear weapons, destroying large parts of the globe and leaving China and its de facto government, the Central Committee, as the last man standing, so to speak. India and America also have surviving populations, and it's in India that Alice and her family are living day to day.

One facet of this story does stand out in the zombie apocalypse genre: The zombies are written, eventually, as sympathetic characters. They didn't choose to become zombies -- nor would they, likely -- but does that mean they have no right to "life"? It's a question Alice grapples with; the Biters do have some degree of sentience, after all. When she's forced to turn to them as allies, however reluctantly, she has to accept that. (I'd like to have seen more about Alice's people's struggles to wrap their minds around that concept, as they've spent the last decade-plus blaming the Biters for ruining the world, but it wasn't that big of an omission.)

Dhar's writing is a little rough around the edges, and there were a few typos or editing errors that made me cringe. On the whole, though, it was an enjoyable read. To its credit, it made me want to go back and read Carroll's "Alice" again.

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