A quick thank you to Merge Publishing for the book copy – there’s currently a giveaway for this book happening here. I’m honored to have this opportunity to review this work.
The best word to describe Mary Shotwell’s recent young adult novel, Weariland, is particularly apt given its cast of characters; that word is ‘(re)imaginative’. Shotwell, a Biostatistics PhD hailing from Ohio, takes a childhood favorite, Alice in Wonderland, and pushes the boundary of Carroll’s original colorful tale to take us somewhere new, grey, and, in the current favored style of young adult readers everywhere, Dystopian.
Shotwell jumps right into the action from page one with the gruesome and suspenseful murder of our beloved Alice, letting us know right off the bat that this will be very different from Carroll’s wonder-filled tale of wide-eyed and innocent exploration. Shotwell also uses these early pages to introduce some of her own creations – Lason, Alice’s granddaughter and the intrepid (if reluctant) protagonist, and the villain’s cronies, the tarmals, which play a big role in pulling Weariland’s dystopia into our own world. Shotwell builds suspense early by jump-starting the story with Alice’s death, and also uses this plot point to show us that Carroll’s story may be the origin of her tale but certainly will not control its course.
This book’s interesting premise – a complete 180 on an old classic that we all know and love – is one of its biggest strengths. Whenever there’s a progenitor of a work, the new author has to distinguish their work from the predecessor – Shotwell does this with ease through her complete re-imagining of Wonderland (without taking away any of the essentials; say, the White Rabbit). I appreciated a lot of the little details she threw in – for example, the Rabbit’s “new” time-keeping device; these inside jokes for readers of Carroll’s work abounded, and I appreciated Shotwell’s dedication to working within Carroll’s world while simultaneously exploring brand new locations and beings in her Weariland with zeal. Imagination is not lacking in Shotwell’s vision for Weariland. It was exciting to watch the work come alive as new creatures, people, and places were unveiled in each chapter.
While the general content and premise of Shotwell’s book are to be praised, I did want to dedicate a small portion of this review to an honest remark on the book’s biggest weakness – poor dedication to craft overall. YA can understandably have a lower writing quality than many other genres given that YA readers are generally less interested in craft than content (and there’s nothing wrong with that). However Shotwell’s work here could have used more red pen and another draft. I think the lack of dedication to improving these elements, particularly dialogue, character consistency, and pacing, hampered the book’s storytelling as we waded through the middle towards the very haphazard ending.
Dialogue was flat and often meandered; there were detailed scenes constructed that didn’t push the plot or characters forward in development – if they had been cut, more important scenes near the end could have been given more prominence. Particularly, more time was needed to show, rather than tell, us about Lason’s mental shift from ordinary girl to extraordinary heroine. Characters were not always consistent in their relationships with one another (Lason and her mother, especially) or even with their own internal motivations. The inclusion of so many unnecessary scenes and so much messy dialogue in the middle meant that the book’s pace slowed down dramatically after the beginning, and then felt rushed at the end when we got to the more meaningful action (this also created the problem of plot holes as important details were left out when too many small details and characters had been given to us earlier, and had wasted our time). A reader of Weariland should be informed that the lack of attention to these various craft elements does not ruin the book’s commendable creative energy, but it certainly does not enhance the reading experience overall.