Author: Marissa Meyer
There are a lot of fairytale retellings on the market today. The Queen of Hearts alone has gotten two within the last six months (this one and Colleen Oakes’s book). But even if you think the genre is getting saturated, or you’re not a big Alice in Wonderland fan, this one is well worth picking up.
Marissa Meyer first made her mark as a stellar YA voice with Cinder and the subsequent Lunar Chronicles books, which take the stories of Cinderella/Little Red Riding Hood/Rapunzel/Snow White and runs them through a blender in a delightful sci-fi/fantasy romp. Comparatively, Heartless stays quite a bit closer to its source material, acting more as an origin story than an outright reimagining. However, if you’re anticipating either of the below characterizations, back it up a bit.
Lady Catherine is the sole child and heir of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove, brought up to be a gentlewoman. Unfortunately for her parents, Cath would rather be elbow-deep in flour, baking the finest treats the Kingdom of Hearts has ever tasted. The bumbling King himself is an avid fan of her confections, leading him to pay far closer attention to Cath than she would like, especially when the Cheshire Cat (chief gossip of the land) drops a hint that his thoughts may be turning toward matrimony.
At a masked ball, Cath barely ducks the King’s declarations before unexpectedly encountering the new court joker, a clever, handsome man who quickly captures her mind, dreams, and heart. Nobody knows anything about him, but as he and Cath continue to cross paths, we learn that his fate is twisted up with that of a certain Hatter and March Hare, and his arrival in the Kingdom of Hearts is not as innocuous as he would claim.
While it received an enormous amount of hype from the book world, I think this book also undersold itself. The “elevator pitch” synopsis is this:
Long before she was the terror of Wonderland – the infamous Queen of Hearts – she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love.
Yes, she ultimately falls in love, and yes, that does play a major part in her descent into darkness, but this straight and narrow description reduces a well-rounded, complex character to nothing more than half of a romantic duo rather than a sharp-minded, creative dreamer. Her lifelong goal – to open a bakery with her best friend and throw off the trappings of nobility – has nothing to do with love. The true conflict is that she doesn’t want to conform to her family’s rigid expectations. This stands at odds both with her bakery dream and notions of love with a common man, though the doomed love is portrayed as the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
The romance also takes far longer than I expected to blossom into “true love,” which was a good thing for me. Many of Cath and Jest’s early encounters are characterized by clashing wills and questions of the legitimacy of their pseudo-courtship, since Cath is refreshingly self-aware of the fact that she knows next to nothing about Jest. This slow burn, which has plenty of real feeling but culminates in nothing more physically scandalous than some kissing and the occasional glimpse of an ankle, leaves plenty of room for the world of Hearts to be fully realized with all the fantastical creativity that made the Lunar Chronicles such a success.
The Kingdom of Hearts is as outrageous as its animated counterpart, but the imaginative descriptions and depth of the people within ground the world into something you can really delve into rather than simply gloss over as superficially enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed a croquet match, which had the humor of Cath striking a deal with her flamingo and hedgehog to help her win, combined with her ongoing turmoil over how she can possibly reject the good-hearted, yet simple-minded King. Clever wordplay and portraying the outrageous as ordinary make it a real delight to read.
It’s not just Cath and Jest that shine, though. The Hatter (who may or may not be Mad yet), the March Hare, Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater and the inscrutable Raven* are all swept into a multifaceted conflict that has no central villainous mastermind, nor a simple cause-and-effect progression. They all make mistakes and play their part in bringing the bitter ending to pass (we know where she ends up, after all). You’ll find yourself wondering what would have happened if just one of the many tangled threads had been woven a little differently, particularly if just one person had been willing to forgive. Friendship, love, fate and the ever-ticking hands of time clash in a tornado of pain and poor choices – some forced and some freely made – that leave the reader right at the doorstep of the classic Queen of Hearts we know, rolling heads and all.
Give this one a shot – I don’t think you’ll regret it.
*If that sounds like it’s been plucked from another work, let’s just say that Meyer admits in the author’s note to being “unable to limit herself to abusing the work of only one great author.” It plays into Raven’s characterization quite well, so fans of classic literature needn’t worry themselves unduly.