Wow! Everything I liked about Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor but missed in Seeing Red is back in Arch Enemy. No, Alyss hasn’t reverted to being a six-year-old prankster and heir to the throne. She is a queen on the run. As such, she has finally lost her annoying calm from the second book. Nor has Dodge succumbed to the nervousness of a low-ranked lover, but that’s fine because now he’s actually an equal partner with Alyss in the war for Wonderland. Yes, there are still battles. But in Arch Enemy, they are less about military gadgets or even who will rule Wonderland and more about the survival of imagination. Without this gift, even Earth is doomed. And to my delight, Beddor even vamped up his descriptions. They are now deftly entwined with his characters and actually feel integral to the book as color to a rainbow.
In the wake of the destruction of imagination, rebel forces are gathering to ensure imagination never returns. The Lady of Clubs rallies protestors in a salvage lot by arguing that a Wonderland devoid of imagination would be cause for celebration. No longer would she or anyone else need to feel like lesser citizens. Some listeners agree. Others obviously do not, for imagination is a part of who they are. What would the world be like for them without this gift? Indeed, what would the world be like if only our mathematicians or scientists ruled? Then again what if Mutty Dumphy, inventor from Wonderland, is correct: How would even the world’s mathematicians and scientists function without imagination? Or how about architects and lawyers? Or builders and managers? For don’t all skills require imagination to a greater or lesser extent?
Obviously, the Lady of Clubs disagrees for she is instrumental in having imaginationists herded up and crammed into prisons. Arch, King of Boarderland, apparently also agrees with her. He will stop at nothing to gain the throne of Wonderland–even if it means destroying the Heart Crystal: the source of imagination. In contrast, Alyss and her hateful aunt believe so strongly in the sanctity of imagination that they are willing to join forces to preserve it because both of them rely on it for their power.
The fight for imagination lays at the heart of the first and third book in the Looking Glass trilogy. When Beddor strayed from that theme in Seeing Redd, he betrayed his strength. Now he is back, writing again about the trilogy’s most beloved and hated characters: our heroine Alyss, her suitor Dodge, her tutor Bibwit, and her bodyguards Hatter and Molly. Bibwit has returned to being his pretentious self, declaring “I can be sure of nothing as much as my own wisdom”. He talks too much, but cares a bundle and is intensely loyal to Alyss–and so I like him. Hatter is back, but no longer simply a master of gadgets, but also a man of divided loyalties: Whom should he protect foremost–his queen or his daughter? His internal conflict represents another theme of the book, that we’re all halfers. We have loyalties to our teachers but also to our friends, to our lovers but also to our parents, and no one is exempt from this divide. Realizing this truth helps Molly recover from the blow to her self-esteem when earlier (in Seeing Redd) she inadvertently endangered Queen Alyss. And of course Arch, Cat, and Redd are back in all their scheming and fury. Will Cat lose his last life? Will Alyss regret her truce with Redd?
While I am relieved and pleased for the revival of deeper themes and developed characters, along the reappearance of whimsy, I am above all surprised by Beddor’s descriptions. In Seeing Redd, I felt as if reading a postcard from a tourist. In Arch Enemy, I feel as if Beddor is writing from his home: “vines as thick as spirit-dane’s shin bones” and “rubbery fronds the size of tea platters”. The vocabulary he uses to describe objects in Wonderland also feels natural: wondercrumpets, lunar phase, frugelberry, hookah smoke, nonsense mirrors, gryphon wing. I don’t know that I care for the the blend of modern and futuristic technology: factories, crystal continuum (subway), entertaining center, message retrieval system, hovercycles, holographs, and self-cleaning rooms. But this is a minor flaw.
Looking Glass Wars meandered at the start, but hooked me with the appearance of the six-year-old prankster Alyss. Seeing Redd was a chore to read, like a school assignment, and I couldn’t wait to be done with it. In contrast, Arch Enemy hooked me with its first sentence and never stopped reeling me in. Which goes to show one should never underestimate sequels. Everything about this third book, including the riveting and exhilarating end, is excellent.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
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