When teenaged Alice Liddell sees the white rabbit, she figures it’s a dream. After all, she’s just settled down for a nap while waiting in the garden for her older sister, so she must be asleep. Besides, the rabbit is wearing clothes. And talking to her. And turning into a man with rabbit ears who grabs Alice and jumps with her down a hole that wasn’t there a moment ago.
Alice lands in the country of Hearts, a place where some inhabitants have “duties” that require them to play a mysterious game according to rules Alice doesn’t understand. Every person goes about heavily armed and fights to the death are common, but death may not mean what it does in our world. And every person, in his or her own strange and sometimes dangerous way, seems to fall in love with Alice.
There are three warring factions in Hearts: the castle, with its queen, whimsical knight, and white rabbit; the Mafia run by the Hatter, bunny-eared March, and the deadly twins Dee and Dum; and the amusement park, where Boris the (Cheshire) cat hangs out. All of them have got it bad for our heroine. They might be willing to die for her, and they’re downright eager to kill for her. Then there’s the one neutral party, Julian, and the otherworldly “dream demon” who visits Alice in her sleep and assures her this is all a dream. Alice is sure she will at some point wake up and rejoin her beloved sister, but there is more to this dream than she realizes.
This six-volume series (released in three omnibus editions by Yen Press, after being partially released by now-defunct TokyoPop) is all kinds of fun. It’s unconventional: relationships are in the forefront, but the story is punctuated by frequent shootouts. Thanks to an interesting take on how death works (and the distinction between “those with duties” and the “faceless” extras), Hearts has massacres right and left. Indeed, Peter White (lovesick rabbit extraordinaire) more than once begins shooting extras just because he’s frustrated that Alice isn’t around. (He’s not the only one – the queen starts ordering random executions for the same reason.) There is blood, but it’s mostly of the light spatter/slightly stained clothing variety, nothing gory.
This is a reverse-harem story, though not all of the characters’ interest in Alice is romantic or physical. The twins Dee and Dum, for example, are kids, and they call Alice “big sis” and want to play with her. Peter White alternates between humorously pathetic and poignant in his love for Alice, especially once he discovers that she has more sympathy for his fluffy rabbit form than the animal-eared human one (March and Boris are animal-eared humans, too, and Boris has a cat’s tail). There are a couple of dramatic kiss scenes, a little innuendo, and some half-dressed-accident-leads-to-funny-misunderstanding misadventures, but no other sexual content.
While the story clearly draws on Alice in Wonderland, a lot is different. The unconcern with death feels familiar – remember that the queen orders executions willy-nilly in the original – but the reason for it is new. The romance angle – especially its take on the Hatter, who reminds Alice of an old love from her own world – is definitely not of Carroll’s devising. (The Hatter is actually one of the few things to bother me about this story. He’s a bad boy, so it seems we’re supposed to see his constant lashing out at Alice – he even tries to kill her once! – as “interest.” When she gets mad at him for treating her this way, some other characters see their fighting as a sign that they like each other. Am I the only one who is sick to death of this trope?)
Alice is a likeable character, good-natured and earnest. There’s humor and drama, and the violence is more an element of atmosphere than of the plot: major characters don’t end up suffering permanent effects from it (though they could). The characters are elegantly drawn, the settings engaging. I got all six volumes in three two-volume books, the last of which contains a selection of pretty color pin-ups at the end. I can see some crossover between fans of this and of Pandora Hearts, for sure, and shojo readers who don’t mind some gunfights between flirtations.
Alice in the Country of Hearts, vol. 1-3
Art by Soumei Hoshino
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9780316212694
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9780316212724
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9780316212687
Yen Press, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: OT (Older Teen)