Even before I begin turning the pages of Mainak Dhar’s Amazon bestseller, Alice In Deadland, its cover announces it as having two things I hold rather dear — blood and gore that comes with zombies (hopefully a bit, not too much), and a gritty female protagonist (hopefully much, not just a bit).
However the book also seems to have chosen to border on some very dangerous territory that I am wary, almost disapproving, of — being ‘inspired’ by a classic. If you choose to touch a classic and let zombies loose in Wonderland — one with bunny ears and another with a hat — you’d better be very, very good at it or risk annoyance punctuated by disapproving snorts.
A few pages into the book, one realises that Dhar takes his inspiration from the classic to an extent, but then lets it take a life and story of its own. This, he achieves with fluency and no loose ends – you have Alice, Bunny Ears, the Hatter and The Queen, but they don’t have the time (or the luxury) for confusion or leisurely tea parties. Heads aren’t chopped off, but bullets are fired at foreheads without much haste.
Alice In Deadland is set in the future, 15 years after the Rising, which destroyed the present-day cities and countries. The world is full of scattered settlements comprising the Deadland, some of which are trying not to trade their independence in return of ‘protection’ by the dubious militia group, Zeus.
Fifteen-year-old Alice is part of one such settlement based out of what was once Delhi. Life for Alice and others in Deadland is mostly about hiding from zombies (called Biters) and resistance to Zeus’s secret, dodgy and possibly dangerous plans for the world. Alice is an excellent shot, having grown up on gunfire training and ambush tactics, which have replaced the Old World schooling in Deadland.
One day, Alice follows the biter called Bunny Ears and falls down the rabbit hole of what she is sure is the underground base of Biters. Once there, she discovers that she is part of a curious prophecy which involves a book from the Old World and that there may be more to the Biters than blood thirst, as the Deadland has been led to believe all these years.
Dhar is not a writer who believes in describing his characters with background and nuance, giving them delicious details. He makes them simmer, not through words but in the chaos he throws their way. He isn’t even the sort who, with his writing, will draw you to a character so strongly that you begin to root for him/her and later mourn their death and downfall — he leaves that to the plot.
If you’re someone who looks out for quirks and surprises in description of characters, you may be a tad disappointed. What Dhar does manage to do is pack in a lot of action in every page so you don’t breathe easy. There isn’t the usual blood and gore one finds in zombie novels, but you miss it.
Alice In Deadland, much like Dhar’s previous book, Zombiestan, is set around world politics and events that resonate with what we see around us – finding cure in a vaccine for those infected by the virus which makes one a Biter, the superpowers branding some people as terrorists because they are suspected of ‘collaborating with elements out to destabilise the peace’ of the world, and other conspiracy theories.
Alice In Deadland doesn’t sanitise what’s happening around us — power struggles, subterfuge — and does so without resorting to sensation, in spite of the violence in the book. What you have, as a result, is a page-turner which moves faster than you can say, ‘wonderland’.