REVIEW: Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland – Jonathan Green (Choose Your Own Adventure Gamebook)

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Author: Jonathan Green (twitter / website)

UK Publisher: Snow Books

Genre: Fantasy, horror, choose your own adventure, gaming books

Buy Now: paperback

Several years after the events of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Alice finds herself back in Wonderland and called upon to save the world of playing cards and talking animals from the increasingly deranged Queen of Hearts. But all is not as it first appears in the fluctuating dream world and soon Alice is battling to save herself from the nightmare that is rapidly overtaking the realm.

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if Alice hadn’t drunk from the bottle labelled ‘Drink Me’, or if she hadn’t joined the Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse for tea? Well now you can find out. In Alice’s Nightmare in Wonderland, YOU decide which route Alice should take, which perils to risk, and which of Wonderland’s strange denizens to fight.

But be warned – whether Alice succeeds in her quest or meets a dire end as the nightmare escalates will be down to the choices YOU make.

Are you ready to go back down the rabbit-hole?

I came across this book on an impromptu trip to the National Games Expo at the NEC earlier this year. Jonathan Green was there selling the books himself, and I was taken by the format, and the massive character posters he had behind him, displaying the class and stats of each of the characters in the books – which had been translated into bookmarks that came with each book. I love Choose Your Own Adventure books, both slightly ironically and completely shamelessly. The last one I read as an adult was Cinderella, Ninja Warrior, so I was excited to read ones which seemed actually well done.

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Currently, only Alice’s Nightmare In Wonderland and The Wicked Wizard of Oz are available, but one based on Peter Pan called Neverland has been successfully crowdfunded and is due for release in October this year. I bought both the Alice and the Wizard of Oz books, but so far have only played Alice. What particularly drew me to the books was the art – illustrated by Kevin Crossley, the art is luxuriously detailed, and deliciously dark to fit the subject matter, but it manages to skilfully mimic the illustrations from the classic releases of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland whilst changing small, sinister details to bring it in line with the tone of the book. These are very pretty books, inside and out.

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For the structure, Green has been writing variations on Choose Your Own Adventure books for years, so whilst these tomes are fairly hefty, the trail is consistent, and there are so many options and pathways that it would take ages and several re-reads to feel like you had completed the book. It’s not just a Choose Your Own Adventure either, there is a gaming element to it, so random chance dictates your path as much as your active choices, and this is what really set it apart for me and made it a lot of fun.

Like a game of D&D, Alice comes with her own set of stats, and the book gives you the points for each of these to fill in the provided game sheet (I took photos and printed it off because I couldn’t bear to write in the book itself). You are assigned set values to each trait, and then given extra points to distribute as you wish, depending on how you want to weight Alice’s skills. Any skill checks which follow are done with a dice – if you role a number lower or equal to the stat, you have passed the check; if you role higher, you have failed. There is also a mechanism for combat, which is quite involved and I found slightly tricky to understand just reading it, but once I had played a few battles I had got the hang of it pretty neatly.

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The stats for Alice include the usual Logic, Endurance, Agility and Combat, but there is also the Insanity stat – this starts at 0, and various encounters during the book can raise or lower it. There doesn’t seem to be a penalty or a maximum score to avoid, however some choices present you with directions based on whether Alice passes or fails an insanity check (the opposite of the other traits, the roll must be higher to win) or whether she has to make a certain decision based on her insanity score. She also has two special skills – Curiouser and Curiouser, and The Pen is Mightier – which can be used three times each during the story and can alter the narrative for better or for worse.

They recommend playing with two six-sided dice, although a pack of well-shuffled playing cards can also be used. I naturally got out all my dice because I like looking at them, and you probably could use any of them for the combat function, but since it does require some mental maths, sticking to the 6-sided dice does make things a little easier.

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The story is set after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, when the White Rabbit comes again to find Alice to ask her to save Wonderland from the Queen of Hearts. References throughout are made to other works by Carroll, the Jabberwock makes an appearance, naturally, and having some knowledge of the original books does occasionally help in encounters and making appropriate choices in the book – for example the room of doors with the ‘Eat Me’ and ‘Drink Me’ options, or when being quizzed by the Cheshire Cat – but it does not spoil the experience. The story is different enough and the world seems full enough that there are still some surprises.

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Story wise, this is a little Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland meets that horrifying Return to Oz movie, but where Burton’s Alice seemed cagey of going too dark and seemed flimsy because of it, Green charges head first into the bleak and grim and the book is so much better for its commitment to the tone. It’s incredibly sinister, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for younger readers, but it’s the kind of sinister that gives a sort of pleasurable chill as you read – and the ante is upped because if you make the wrong choice then you could very well find yourself dead. There’s a higher level of involvement and thus a high level of investment.

It’s not just dice rolls either, there are puzzles to be solved. On failing a logic check I spent twenty minutes trying to solve a riddle off my own back before eventually having to admit defeat and take the ‘Alice doesn’t know, turn to XXX’ option. The book engages just about every part of the brain available, and is great fun besides. It’s cleverly done as well, I ended my game on this instance because I had got lost in the labyrinth and had spent half an hour literally going in circles. You need to pay attention and be awake, and sometimes make notes of where you’ve been so you don’t end up stuck, because this book could very easily get one over on you given half the chance.

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As an additional point – I have been reading this with a young man I tutor in literacy. He is severely dyslexic, and wasn’t diagnosed until his late teens so didn’t have any specific support for reading whilst at school. We’ve struggled to find books that are interesting for him, and which stretch and engage him. He passed his Functional Skills level 1 in reading and writing a few months back, and since then we have used a lot of comics to build his confidence because finding a novel pitched at his level which also is suitable for his age is nigh on impossible. This is the first prose book he has read, and whilst some of the vocabulary is quite complex, he has been reading it fluently and engaging with it in a way he didn’t with texts the exam board provided, which are universally dull as ditch water and patronising as hell. Because this is separated into short sections between actions, he doesn’t get exhausted by never-ending long blocks of text, since he isn’t used to that yet. Equally, the decisions, puzzles and encounters provide both natural pauses for a rest without losing the thread of the story, and chances for him to use the skills he is more confident in – problem-solving, maths, logic puzzles. This gives his reading muscles time to recover, but also helps build his confidence over all with the book, and with his reading, because he can associate that with things he is good at.

My teaching method (oh hello, there’s that teaching degree I did) has always been to stretch learners where possible, beyond what they need, as then it makes the level they are supposed to work at seem that much easier, and this book is ideal for it. With one-to-one support, we’ve finally found a book that an adult learner can enjoy whilst building up basic reading skills. Particularly given how difficult it is to find engaging books for adult readers with dyslexia or poor literacy, I’ve been delighted with this. Yes, the vocabulary is high level, but it is giving an opportunity to learn words and phrases which might not otherwise be encountered, and a point for discussion. It’s been a lot of fun and a very positive experience all around.

Briefly:

  • An eloquent, comprehensive and engaging story, around a very well-designed game system and Choose Your Own Adventure format. It’s something really different and fun, and really enjoyable to play and read.
  • Beautifully bound and illustrated, it commits to the tone and really runs with it, whilst making enjoyable references to the original in both the writing and the art.
  • It has proven to be a surprisingly good tool for engaging my adult tutee with his reading, stretching his skills and building on them whilst being an actually enjoyable experience. I would definitely recommend it as a resource for adult learners. Independently, I suspect an e-edition would work better to assist with reading complex vocabulary, but as we have one-to-one support, we have been able to address any queries, and he has definitely grown more confident as we read.

Rating: 5/5 – this is a perfect example of a expertly-crafted game book. Even aside from the complexity of constructing a normal Choose Your Own Adventure book, the added game mechanisms could easily have catapulted this into a jumbled mess, but instead it works so well and runs so fluently that it really is an exceptional example of its genre.

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