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A Bit of Summer Reading

by Rudi Dornemann

Review: Through the Wonderglass and Adventures in Lookingland by Seelie Nican

Given all the adaptations, rearrangings, and reimagings to which Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books have been subjected over the past 150 years, a steampunk Alice was, I suppose, inevitable. Nican's books are more a techno-Victorian translation of the originals than a wholesale reworking on the order of Frank Beddor's recent Looking Glass Wars. She keeps the sequence of scenes intact and even weaves a sentence of two of Carroll's prose into each chapter, which lends an interesting patina to the text.

When her method works, which is most of the time, Nican's visions can be striking. Her steamwork caterpillar is a cyborg fused to its own hookah. Her hatter, afloat in his mercury tank, is unsettlingly mad. Her Cheshire cat is a holograph generated by the ivory mechanism of its own smile. Her mock turtle might have swum over from the island of Dr. Moreau, and her dodo/gryphon is a metaphysical Machiavelli, orchestrating Alice's journey among all these creatures.

With the basic method set out in Wonderglass, Nican really cuts loose in Lookingland, riffing on the more dreamlike movement of Carroll's second book, to create such extended sequences as the tulgey wood (where the forest is the jabberwock), the Dickens-meets-Dante bleakness of the walrus and carpenter's story, or the Escheresque sprawl of the sheep's seagoing millworks.

While the gears and airships treatment works well for Alice, the approach is less fruitful in Nican's space opera Hunting of the Snark. Perhaps because the Snark offers less material to work with, she spends far too long establishing the world and backstory against which she can set the voyage of Carroll’s doomed questers. The book occasionally delivers some of the frisson of Nican's Alice books -- as in the final chapter, where the Baker makes his way through the echoing, flickering caverns of the generation ship's vast computer in search of the android that may be programmed as either snark or boojum, or, tragically, both.

Next, I'm reading Ulro's Dream, book one of the Zoasiad, Nican's nine-volume epic fantasy series based on the work of William Blake. The cover, melding Blake's artwork with stereotypical fantasy art in a Frank Frazetta vein, isn't all that appealing, but I hear the story's good, once you get past the first couple hundred pages of the prologue.

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