Lewis Carroll‘s Alice duology, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, have inspired plenty of anime and manga over the years, and a few otome games besides. With the popularity of the isekai subgenre of characters being reincarnated into otome games – often the villainess – it really was only a matter of time before the two were combined together in one light novel. Cross Infinite World appears to have won the race to find it in I Reincarnated as Evil Alice, so the Only Thing I’m Courting is Death by Chii Kurusu. In some ways it feels like a female-oriented manga/light novel bingo, because this book has everything: a selection of hot, occasionally non-human, guys, Gothic Lolita fashion, a pseudo-Victorian setting, a heroine who can take care of herself (but doesn’t always want to), and descriptions of cute pastries. Fortunately it manages to be more than just a checklist of these things and is actually a good book.

One of the ways the novel distinguishes itself from many others set in an approximation of 19th century England is that it actually goes to some lengths to ground itself in the details of its setting. While some things are the usual brand of wrong – curtseying for whatever reason is hard for people to grasp – it gets an impressive amount right in a way that speaks to the author’s research. For one thing, the book refers to Carroll’s works by their actual names (rather than abbreviating it to the Disneyfied Alice in Wonderland), but the details of Alice’s undergarments are also more correct than we typically see, and there are references to things like Mayfair and Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (a ubiquitous Victorian text) that really show that Kurusu didn’t just throw in a couple of carriages and long skirts and call it the 19th century. This makes the more fantasy/horror-based pieces of the story work better as well, because the world is nicely grounded before any of these elements are fully delved into.

The story follows Alice (we don’t know her original name) who died in modern-day Japan while saving an injured kitten in the road. In that life she was a working woman who happily indulged in her favorite otome games, especially a vicious one – it beat out games in other genres for “Deadliest Game of the Year” – called Evil Alice’s Lover. When the plot of the game begins in earnest at age thirteen, Alice regains her memories of her previous life and realizes what has happened. To her horror, she finds that her efforts to fall for a random side character and thus avoid the numerous death flags on the love interests’ routes are quickly stymied, because somehow she’s stuck in the DLC route that had just been announced when she died. Therefore she has zero idea what the pitfalls are, and to complicate matters she can’t seem to stop herself from falling for Dark, whose route she’s on. Whether that’s because he’s genuinely the kind of guy she’d go for or if her feelings are the result of being locked into the route isn’t entirely clear, but given who her favorite character was before, the latter case feels slightly more likely, which opens up a whole different set of possibilities for the story.

As the title implies, Evil Alice’s Lover is loosely based on Carroll’s duology. Part of the fun is trying to figure out who all of the characters are meant to represent; some, like Jack and the Tweedle twins, are easy while Dark and Leeds are a little more difficult and may in fact be a combination of two characters. There are tea parties, pocket watches, big hats, and many other familiar motifs, while the story itself takes more cues from American McGee’s Alice, the video game that helped popularize dark retellings and rendered people unaware that the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts are two separate people. Alice Liddell is the sole remaining member of the Liddell family, which operates in the shadows to help Queen Victoria’s government take care of supernatural threats. When they were attacked by a demon themselves when Alice was thirteen, everyone died – including Alice. She and family servant Jack (who died trying to save her) were resurrected by a passing demon as “Stigmata” – people given a second chance at life and a supernatural power but who will be dragged to Hell upon their death. Alice and Jack gathered other Stigmata and continued in the family trade until Dark, an earl, showed up as one and threw everything out of whack, which is where the novel begins.

Kurusu doesn’t skimp on the horror details without getting overly descriptive; this is more akin to The Deathbound Duke’s Daughter in tone than any other currently translated novel. Alice’s world is scary and dangerous and without her new family, she’d be unable to survive, Stigmata or no – which the writing makes very clear. This does mean that there are few light moments in the plotline, and even when scenes are supposed to be funny the heaviness of the rest of the book still hangs over everything, so this isn’t a story you pick up for a fluffy read. It also does feel a bit as if Alice (and possibly the author) are fighting the Dark route for Jack’s; whether or not Alice is actually in control of her feelings may have something to do with this later on. There is, however, a very nice use of themes and pulling plot threads through to the end; the last-minute reveal is one of the strongest parts of the story, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off.

I Reincarnated as Evil Alice is dark and bit grim. But it does successfully merge a host of popular tropes into one engaging novel, and while fans of the original Alice books may get more out of it, anyone looking for a female-oriented light novel that isn’t actually light should enjoy this one. It’s interesting, grounded, and features the sprightliest Queen Victoria I’ve ever seen, and is definitely worth giving a chance.

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