Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Wednesday December 6, 2023: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Off with Their Heads

Disney Hyperion: Off with Their Heads by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Disney Hyperion: Off with Their Heads by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Disney Hyperion: Off with Their Heads by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Disney Hyperion: Off with Their Heads by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Off with Their Heads

by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Zoe Hana Mikuta's Off with Their Heads realizes the phrase "We're all mad here" in such memorably gruesome ways that Lewis Carroll and his Cheshire Cat would be astounded. In this mesmerizing YA fantasy horror reimagining of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland from the author of the Gearbreakers series, two brave and broken young witches fight monsters and each other. Mikuta infuses her lush, bloody, anarchic lovers-to-enemies vision of the classic children's novel with elements of Korean culture and visceral magic for a strikingly filmic reading experience.

White Queen Delcorta October Kkul made a game of pitting human criminals against Saints, magical heroes who have transformed into grotesque monsters that feed on human emotion. No matter who survived the contest, the queen always slayed the Saints. When Iccadora Alice Sickle and Carousel Rabbit were 16, Saint Kat Pillar slipped her captors and escaped the Queen's deadly "Saints' Races." The girls, madly in love with each other, nearly died in their brush with the Saint, who wound up in their village, and were unable to help their close friend Tecca, whom Kat brutally killed. The magical stain of Tecca's death tainted the girls, forcing them to become Jabberwockies, prisoners sentenced to Wonderland Forest, a place where feral Saints roam largely unchecked. Icca, who can control darkness (darkporting), and Caro, who can control crows, combined their powers to survive and hunt the monsters in the woods. They were sustained by a love that "pricked and stung... they were already such barbed girls. Such bramble-wrought souls."

The girls grew strong in their power and wild magic leaked as fluid from their eyes, noses, and mouths, blue for Caro and silver for Icca. Together, they worked toward the only thing that could end their banishment: presenting four Saints' heads to the Queen. Eventually, both girls paid their debt and reentered society, but a mutual betrayal left them unable to walk out of Wonderland together, unable to be anything resembling together ever again. "What do you get when you have two witches with violent tendencies in love, and you take away the love?... You get two witches with violent tendencies."

Five years later, Icca and Caro are madly in hate. Icca lives to take the heads of Saints, and plot her vengeance against the crown for Tecca's death and her own imprisonment. The White Queen has died, but in her place reigns her perilous daughter Hattie November Kkul, the Red Queen. Hattie's crimson magic flows from her body constantly, leaving her unable to wear any color but red because of the stains. Rumor has it Hattie murdered her mother, though no one could prove her guilt at the time. She keeps an entourage of absolved Jabberwockies called the Culled Court, in which Caro now serves her as devotedly as Icca despises her. Hattie has "reformed" the Saints' Races to no longer include humans: instead, she creates her own custom monsters by magically stitching Saints together, then pitting the results against non-augmented Saints in public matches. "Hattie [is] cruel, and insane, and she [makes] a joke of this world," but she's also powerful beyond question. Caro regards her with awe, "and Caro liked being in awe. It kept the boredom fastened back."

This year's Saints' Races approach, and Icca's determination to put an end to the Kkuls puts her on a collision course with Caro. As the ex-lovers lose their heads over their animosity, the Red Queen waits in the wings with a sinister plan for the deadly and damaged heroines.

Mikuta weaves a dark and tangled spell of soul-rending pain and terrible yearning that grafts to the source material with ease, translating iconic characters through the lexicon of her vicious world. Here the Cheshire Cat becomes a beautiful gossip of a young man, while the Caterpillar is a nightmarish creature who spins its nest from human bodies. The plot and relationship trajectories follow the model of the Caucus Race, none of the participants able to win but none of them able to stop running. Like Alice, Icca follows her White (Carousel) Rabbit into places where only madness and pain wait for her, knowing that being "good wouldn't keep her alive. It would barely keep her entertained." The author trusts her audience to ride the waves of surreal logic in her ambitious creation, never over-simplifying the mad world. Her prose rings vibrant in its descriptions and luxurious in its emotionality as readers follow Icca and Caro through chapters that alternate between the aching tragedies of their adolescence and their reunion as spiteful, vitriolic young adults. Lines blur between love and hate as well as genius and madness in a story that suggests true danger comes not from the threat of monsters, but from the vulnerability of the human heart. Teen readers looking for a fresh, deep take on magic, an unabashedly angst-filled breakup play-by-play, or a darkly irreverent rendering of a childhood classic should not hesitate to leap down the rabbit hole into this epic journey, told in Mikuta's velvet-and-razors prose. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Disney Hyperion, $19.99, hardcover, 416p., ages 12-up, 9781368099066, April 23, 2024

Disney Hyperion: Off with Their Heads by Zoe Hana Mikuta

Zoe Hana Mikuta: Stitching Together Monsters

(photo: Khanh Dinh)

Zoe Hana Mikuta is a Korean American YA author, currently attending the University of Washington in Seattle. She is the author of the YA sapphic mecha sci-fi novels Gearbreakers and Godslayers. When she is not writing, Mikuta can be found embroidering runes on her jeans pockets or curled up with a cup of caramel coffee and a bloody but heartwarming book. She recently spoke with Shelf Awareness about Off with Their Heads (Disney Hyperion, April 23, 2024)--a YA fantasy horror reimagining of Alice in Wonderland--genius versus madness, and building an eclectic body of work.

What differences and common elements should fans of your mecha duology expect to find in this new story?

Besides the general genre shift, I would say Off with Their Heads lacks the overall softness of the Gearbreakers duology but, at the same time, is told with a more whimsical tone by a classic fairytale narrator who's a bit of a sadist. Though I've written a sapphic romantic subplot again, it's far from being lovey-dovey like my mecha duology. Honestly, you'll find no heroes in Off with Their Heads. Everyone is being generally terrible all the time. Common elements include angry girls.

This book is a whirlwind of timeline shifts, magic, elements of classic fiction, and horror. The word "ambitious" barely touches it as a descriptor.

I was definitely trying out a new writing style in Off with Their Heads, and I had a lot of fun working with such a lighthearted tone even as horrible, horrible things were going on. My editor has called it my Wonderland prose.

This book was also my quarantine project--for months and months it was just me and Caro and Icca and Hattie. I think having that solitude helped to get it all out. The majority of the challenge was, frankly, getting over myself. I wanted to do the story I had in my head justice, but because Off with Their Heads isn't my debut, I felt a lot of self-pressure to show my growth as a writer. It totally terrified me that, as the manuscript got longer and longer, it was all going to fall apart, and because I want to do stories as multilayered as this one in the future, it'd mean The End.

But it's done!

I'm gravitating toward having a career of eclectic books; I want them all to be distinctly different, because I want to try out myriad writing styles and genres. With Off with Their Heads, the first book I've done in the fantasy genre, I discovered this "vision" I have of my career will definitely involve going outside my comfort zone.

How did you get from Alice in Wonderland to Off with Their Heads?

I've been enamored with Alice in Wonderland for a while now, and have a soft spot for its horror retellings especially. The story is so versatile for that genre, just from its sheer strangeness and how sanity isn't necessarily a given.

To start, I had a copy of Alice in Wonderland that I annotated with my Off with Their Heads darlings in mind. This was pretty much the only part of the drafting that was in any way organizational. I'm really not someone who writes from a synopsis. I don't know the ending until I get there! I had some structuring scenes in mind--the entering of Wonderland, the mad tea party, the trial--and the relationships between the characters, and then I had to see what I'd end up writing in between. Bless my editor.

Your Red Queen Hattie November Kkul walks the line between artistry and madness.

The line between artistry and madness gets blurred with the onset of obsession. Those elements come together under the umbrella of the "obsessed artist" character trope. I loved playing with this trope. There's such a satisfying contrast between its connotations of creation and deterioration. Over the course of Off with Their Heads, Hattie certainly begins to lose herself in her art of stitching together monsters, even with her initial motivation being to use the medium for self-reflection and self-discovery. I'm hoping her character arc will unsettle readers and strike a chord with the artistic ones, especially as Hattie doesn't mind that she's losing herself if it's all for the glory of her art.

What drew you to write an inside-out love story with a lovers-to-enemies twist?

I haven't seen a ton of sapphic lovers-to-enemies character arcs, and I feel like most of what's on the market for sapphic romance right now is generally on the softer side, my debut included. I asked myself, cackling and having a grand time writing Caro and Icca's disaster of a relationship, "Where's the representation for the sapphics that might be absolutely horrible people?" I wanted to write two girls who were off their respective rockers but also quite enamored with the horrible world around them. Carousel is definitely the bubblier of the two, while Icca is the classic, bleak, "chip on her shoulder" character, but I wanted to make them complement each other through their shared obsession with strangeness. I wanted to make them so weird that the reader couldn't help but dote on them a little. 

How do you feed your creativity?

I read a lot, and I have a lot of tea, and pretend they're magic potions that will solve all my plot holes. I have to accept that my creativity comes in waves. The best thing I can do to feed it is be patient. It is definitely blocked when I try to force it. "Write without fear; edit without mercy," is the eternal, internal chant to keep from scaring the creativity off.

In a world where writers are often advised to write to the reader's expectations or genre standards, how do you find the self-assurance to take big swings?

My editor, Rebecca [Kuss], and literary agent, Laura [Rennert], are constantly encouraging me to write as weird as I want and to take risks. Having that creative freedom has been everything. As for self-assurance, the thought that I'm writing something strange and entertaining pushes me forward. I think for a while, when people heard "YA" they thought of a certain specific writing style, cleaner-cut and easily digestible. I see so many writers now who stand out because of their unique voices, even if their work might not have been "sellable" 10 years ago. It absolutely lights me up when I see YA prose that goes off the beaten path. Some authors that come to mind are Andrew Joseph White and Joan He.

What strange beauty should we expect from you next?

My next book is another YA fantasy horror, and it's going to be bleaker than Off with Their Heads. A quick teaser: in a world where witchcraft has the nasty side effect of psychological erosion, a coven comes together to find a cure for magic. They're certain it's waiting for them just on the other side. Or maybe they're just addicted to the cozy slew of death and resurrections. Or maybe to each other. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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