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FICTION: Alice in weirder lands

Updated March 19, 2017


Alice is an anomaly in Ferenwood where colours run riot and nothing is plain or pale or white, and where magic is as common as the sun lighting up rainbows. Alice, sadly, is neither colourful nor magical. She is a pale, ordinary girl in a crowd of children with skin all shades of brown and hair every colour imaginable, with abilities Alice cannot even begin to attempt. But what sets Alice apart from the others is the sadness she and her family carry with them constantly — Alice’s father vanished from Ferenwood a year ago and has not been heard of since. She wants very much to find him and bring him back, to complete her family again, bereft as they have been on their own.

Iranian-American writer Tahere Mafi is well-known for her bestselling young adult series which began with Shatter Me, followed by Destroy Me and Fracture Me. Furthermore is her first middle-grade novel, a charming, whimsical adventure story about a young girl who wants very much to fit into the charming, whimsical world she lives in. Ferenwood, Alice’s home, is a place where lives are built around magic, and it appears that Alice has none, nor does she have any colour — the “universal sign of magic” — which sets her apart in a land where the people occupy themselves with “harvesting colour and magic from the air and earth and building an entire system of currency around it.”

Every year, children of a certain age must display their magical talents at the Surrender, where they are judged and then given a task specific only to them. This is their “ultimate task” — one that gives them purpose in life. When Alice turns twelve she displays her gift for dancing; but it appears she has picked the wrong talent. There is something else she can do, something that she insists isn’t a talent but “biology”, and she keeps it hidden from the Elders. As a result she is not assigned a task. This nearly breaks Alice who wants nothing more than to be tasked with finding her father — which she is adamant on doing, regardless.

A novel infuses dystopian fiction with silliness and whimsy

Unfortunately, Alice isn’t certain where to start, or how. No one leaves Ferenwood, so where could her father have gone? A boy named Oliver, with whom Alice is not very friendly, appears to know a lot more about her father’s disappearance. Oliver insists he has been tasked with finding Alice’s father and if Alice is to trust him, she must go with him to the strange (even by Ferenwood standards) land of Furthermore, where nothing is as it seems and illogical, decidedly odd dangers lie around every corner. Oliver has his own set of secrets just as Alice does, and neither is quite able to confess to the other what they may be. They must therefore navigate the space around each other as carefully as they do the dangerous landscape of Furthermore. Oddly enough, Oliver seems to know Furthermore fairly well, which makes Alice wonder why he needs her at all and why he won’t just tell her how to get to her father. It doesn’t help that Oliver’s ability is to be able to lie and get away with it. He can convince anyone of pretty much anything — except, perhaps, Alice.

Mafi’s language is so rich, imaginative and evocative that it’s easy to get pulled into the story, to jump on board with her whimsy, which isn’t always light. Sometimes Alice’s family “eat sorrow with their syrup” with “unspoken hurts piled high on their plates”; sometimes she feels as if losing her father has “unzipped her from top to bottom,” with “grief a tangible weight” that she carries.

Alice was an odd girl, even for Ferenwood, where the sun occasionally rains and the colours were brighter than usual and magic was as common as a frowning parent. Her oddness was evident even in the simplest things she did, though most especially in her inability to walk home in a straight line. She stopped too many times, wandering off the main path, catching deep breaths and holding them, too selfish to let them go. She spun until her skirts circled around her, smiling so wide she thought her face would break and blossom. She hopped around on tiptoe, and only when she could stand it no longer would she exhale what wasn’t hers to keep. — ­Excerpt from the book

Meanwhile, Ferenwood and the various towns of Furthermore are bizarre and unique in the best of ways, with a land called Slumber which is “tediously dark”, and a land called Left from where it is terribly difficult to leave. It is all very clever and very silly at the same time — something that works perfectly for a middle-grade adventure with a solid heart. Furthermore is told by a chatty, fun narrator who breaks the fourth wall often, with direct referrals to the reader. This adds to the charm, appealing easily to the age group at whom the story is directed just as easily as to adult readers. It’s a quirky, funny story, staunchly about family, friendship and the adventures that come along as you grow.

The reviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at

By Tahere Mafi
Dutton, US
ISBN: 978-1101994764

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 19th, 2017