A.G. Howard’s Goth-infused, fantasy novel “Splintered’’ is in many ways a brilliant debut, in others a disturbing one. Brilliant, because it is ambitious, inventive, and often surprising — a contemporary reworking of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,’’ with a deep bow toward Tim Burton’s 2010 film version. Disturbing, because it’s so filled with predictable TV-style images, poor writing, clichés, and homilies. “Look inside yourself. Because finding who you were meant to be? What you were put into this world to do? That’s what fills the emptiness.’’
Even before it was published, “Splintered’’ generated buzz and established a fan base. A movie version, unsurprisingly, is in the works, as is a possible book sequel. The question is: Will “Splintered’’ find success despite its many flaws, or because of them?
It’s worth pondering. Young readers often love best the very books that adults seem most inclined to criticize. Witness the popularity of the old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy series — once decried by librarians and educators as perniciously slap-dash. “[M]uch of the contempt for social conventions,” wrote one critic at the time, “is due to the reading of this poisonous sort of fiction.” Well, “contempt for social conventions” is essential to childhood and adolescence, and what could be more conventional than good grammar and a polished writing style? Modern critics have swooped down with equal energy on wildly popular books like “The Hunger Games,’’ “Twilight,’’ and most inexplicably, the Harry Potter series. (I suspect the Potter critics never actually read the books.)
At the center of “Splintered’’ is our heroine and narrator Alyssa, great-great-great granddaughter of Alice Liddell, Carroll’s real-life girl muse. Alice and all her descendants are cursed — or blessed — with visions, mental illness, curiosity, hypersensitivity. Alyssa hears the whispers of insects and flowers, and the book opens with her “arranging their corpses into outlines and shape. Dried flowers, leaves, and glass pieces add color and texture . . . These are my masterpieces . . . my morbid mosaics.”
When Alyssa’s mother, Allison, descends into deeper madness, Alyssa journeys to Wonderland with Jeb, her troubled, artsy friend, to find the solution to the ancestral curse. One there, she faces a series of challenges proctered by the dark, brooding Morpheus whose allure is clear but whose motives are murky.
“Splintered’’ is neither for the faint of heart, nor the lover of deep character or slow-building drama. There is lyricism, but little true poetry. Take this description of Morpheus: “He’s a contradiction: taut magic coiled to strike, gentleness at war with severity, a tongue as sharp as a whip’s edge, yet skin so soft he could be swathed in clouds.” The novel’s fantasies are typical middle school fantasies, rooted in rebellion, desire, ambition.
Jeb, the novel’s chief romantic interest, tells Alyssa, “You’re going to be a famous artist.” His voice is deep velvet — soothing and sure. “You’ll live in one of those artsy, upscale apartments in Paris with your rich husband.” Actually, her fate is far more interesting — which is where Howard’s genius enters in. She handle plot well, building momentum as she goes, tossing out one dark adventure after another. It is, in fact, almost impossible to describe the plot without spoilers, since it’s a novel built on shifting tectonic plates, quick changes, and revelations.
Contemporary young readers are clearly drawn to the macabre, and “Splintered’’ offers a cornucopia of the dead and dying. “The morbid and revolting are such fascinating subjects,” the novel claims. If so, “Splintered’’ will enchant many. It features monsters, madwomen, and clutching vines; stalkers; killers; and zombie flowers.
Subtlety is not the strong suit of the book. It’s about as much like Carroll’s masterpiece as a classic comic is like its original. But there are resemblances, of course, and Howard constantly points the reader back to the 1865 classic: conjuring the river of tears and reviving the tea party.
As contemporary heroines go, Alyssa is a mass of contradictions: brave and terrified; outlandish and conventional; independent, yet predictably jelly-legged in the face of romance. Equally predictable, alas, is Howard’s language of love:
“ ‘I was afraid of . . . ’ . . . ‘Go on . . . ’ I press. ‘Of unloading my baggage on someone as sweet as you.’ I can’t keep the smile off my lips. ‘Oh, wow.’ ‘What?’ ‘I guess we’re both oblivious. That’s the same reason I kept running from my feelings for you.’ ‘Because I’m sweet?’ That dimpled, boyish grin flashed over his face.”
Sentimental moments like these may inspire eye-rolling among older readers, but pre-teens may gravitate toward “Splintered’’ just because of such scenes as well as the sheer number of fantasy adventures involved in the constantly-twisting plot.
In “Splintered’’ readers will at least make the acquaintance of characters and allusions worth knowing: mad hatter, hookah-smoking caterpillar, vanishing cat, mad queens, gloves, key, looking glass, and more. These alone might be worth the price of admission. Certain reluctant readers and lovers of heavy-metal, fashion-forward fantasy will doubtless find much to love.