For those of us not overly fond of romance, this time of year can be tricky to navigate. Everywhere I go, I see hearts, pink balloons and other reminders that the Valentine season is upon us. A love story has to be extraordinary in a way I haven’t seen before in order to get me interested. From what I’ve observed, most people who read a lot of teen fiction seem to gobble up love stories the way I devour chocolates from a heart-shaped box, so I don’t know if my situation is a common one.
A. G. Howard’s Splintered is a modern reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, starring skater-girl and macabre artist Alyssa as the main lead. As the last descendant of the Liddell family, Alyssa was born with the ability to hear insects and flowers talk – an ability which landed her own mother in a psychiatric institution. Alyssa works hard to hide this from her friends and family, until one day, a figure from her past reappears to turn her world upside-down. This is the first teen paranormal romance I have truly loved.
The Splintered series, which finally reached its epic conclusion this past January, is dark, unique and just plain fun. I have not been this giddy over a book series since the last days of Harry Potter. So, for this Valentine’s Day, let me tell you why.
First, these books grabbed me on a purely aesthetic level – they are pretty. And I don’t just mean the cover designs, although that’s certainly true. I mean every detail is artistically rendered. The font is purple or maroon instead of black, and the chapter headings are a tangle of curlicues. I always appreciate it when a book delights in its own format, bringing more to the page than mere words. The experience of reading it is like being transported to another world before you even know what it’s about.
Second, this is not your childhood Wonderland. The world of Splintered is wild, gruesome and disturbing on a level that rivals some of the grisliest horror stories I’ve encountered, all without sacrificing the whimsy and brightly-colored chaos you’d expect from this type of setting. Not everyone remembers just how terrifying a fairy-tale landscape can be, but Howard is fortunately one of those who does.
Third, and most importantly, this story features a love triangle which is both completely by-the-book and completely new. Yes, there are two rivals for Alyssa’s affections, and as usual they represent the “normal,” real-world aspect of her life, and the fantastic, escapist aspect respectively. What Howard does with Alyssa’s potential suitors, however, is cut straight to the truth of what those choices really mean: these two young men, Morpheus (the Wonderland trickster) and Jeb (the hometown sweetheart) represent two warring halves of Alyssa’s own personality. This same dynamic lurks under the surface of most love triangles, but in this one, it’s made explicit just how difficult a choice that is to make. Alyssa’s struggle to be true to herself while keeping everyone else happy is so intense that by the last book, it is literally ripping her heart in two.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will say Howard manages to conclude the series on a wholly satisfying note, somehow without bypassing any of the drama and pathos that had built up over the course of the story. If you’re looking for a new twist on a timeless classic, or just a fresh take on a popular archetype, do yourself a favor and check these books out.