“Ferenwood had been built on color,” Tahereh Mafi writes of her protagonist, Alice’s, magical homeland in her middle grade debut. “Bursts of it, swaths of it, depths and breadths of it.” What seems a surprising new direction after her gritty, post-apocalyptic Shatter Me series actually, considering Mafi’s lush, lyrical writing in her excursion into sci-fi, makes perfect sense.
Now, in a genre and category that rewards whimsy, where a witty and knowing narrator can slip right into the action without much fuss, Mafi’s vivid metaphors and heady descriptions of feeling are never at risk of being read melodramatically. For the YA dystopian author who once wrote “every butterfly in the world has migrated to my stomach,” Furthermore, with its adventurous spirit and Wonderland worldbuilding, should be the perfect fit. So why isn’t it?
In terms of reading experience, realizing Furthermore doesn’t know where it’s going is something of a slow burn: the narration style is, at least, outwardly charming, and some of the odd narrative choices it enables––revealing characters’ motivations right away, using flowery prose to explain the depth of a characters’ feelings rather than elaborating through dialogue or description––seem like choices made in good faith.
But after a full fourth of the book passes, and the slow, sputtering engine of our adventure still hasn’t managed to get it rolling, Furthermore becomes less a boundary-breaking experiment in tone and more an empty vessel for pithy sayings and flashy fantasy concepts, where everything that could go wrong when a book plays fast and loose with magic and gleefully chucks the fourth wall, does.
When we first learn about Alice Alexis Queensmeadow, a girl born entirely without color in a world that prizes it above all else, we’re told exactly everything we need to know: her lack of color and how it affects her, her disposition, her relationship with her mother (cold), her relationship with her father (warm), and her special talent (dancing). We are told all of this outright, in a simple scene of her going about her daily life, with hardly any action, and almost all exposition.
Later on, whenever a critical piece of information comes into play, we’re given it, again, outright, at the whims of a narrator who, to Mafi’s credit, certainly reads like someone who’d opt for expediency, but, of course, in consequence, knowing everything makes nothing a surprise.
In one frustrating instance, as Alice runs from her childhood enemy-turned-traveling-companion, Oliver, Mafi not only pauses the action to spend almost a page walking us through her motives; she stops to explain Oliver’s shortsightedness, too, denying the conflict between them the chance to fester into something with true consequences.
Tension, in other words, has no hope of survival in the pages of Furthermore––either the chatty narrator spills information that should’ve been concealed, or otherwise left for inference, or hides it until a convenient moment, and upon its release, the revelation feels arbitrary; something whipped up only to magic a messy situation away.
Where worldbuilding is concerned, Furthermore belongs in a tradition of colorfully embracing the nonsensical, which children’s fantasy has been borrowing from since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: The School for Good and Evil fits this tradition, as does Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series. When things don’t, strictly speaking, make “sense”––when rules appear out of nowhere and magic is unpredictable––there are myriad opportunities for satire, inventiveness, and zany concepts that would absolutely wreck the suspension of disbelief in a straight-laced fantasy novel.
That’s what it seems like Furthermore is going for here: in the land of Furthermore, where Alice and Oliver travel to recover Alice’s missing father, there’s a village of paper, a village to the left of a signpost called Left, and travel-by-painting, but instead of coming off as whimsical, all these ideas read like bells and whistles, mere distractions from the fact that deep within Furthermore, there isn’t a uniting principle for all this chaos––only a half-baked attempt at one.
Take Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for instance: Wonderland is a supremely nonsensical place, but that’s by design. The whole point of its nonsense is to face Alice, a person who expects the world to operate logically, with the utterly arbitrary. It’s a decision that reflects character, but can also work as an analogue for the very real experience of coming of age in our labyrinthine and often nonsensical adult world. (Yes, I never shut up about Alice, but this is why.)
In Furthermore, the uniting principle is a heedless disregard for the responsible use of magic, which has made its villages the chaotic places they are, and has also made stray travelers from Ferenwood, a place rich in magic, a delicacy ripe for consumption.
However prominent a threat this explanation provides to our characters, though, we never get the sense that it has any real bearing on the illogic of Furthermore: it serves neither as a proper analogue nor as a suitable reflection of our leads and their flaws.
As a work, Furthermore is defined by two major stylistic choices: the first in the tell-all narrator, and the second in the aforementioned worldbuilding. In a work with unity, these two choices would be inseparable from a book’s themes and characters, justifying themselves on every page, but they often fail to justify themselves in Furthermore. There are major dramatic moments that would be miles better without them, and that’s a terrible sign––no qualities so central to the creative vision of a book should make it suffer this much.
And Furthermore, dear reader, has the makings of an exuberant adventure. It should not have to suffer.