Read: January 2017
UK Release: 9th February 2017
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Retelling.
Synopsis: Long before she was the terror of Wonderland, she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love. Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.
Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. For the first time, she feels the pull of true attraction. At the risk of offending the king and infuriating her parents, she and Jest enter into an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans. Goodreads.
I was provided with a copy of this book by Pan Macmillan Children’s Books UK via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I’d been anticipating the release of this book for quite some time, as I’m already a fan of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles. I really enjoy how she interprets and adapts popular fairy tales in that series, so I was excited to see her take on Carroll’s Wonderland. This, and the fact that I really enjoyed her last foray into a villain backstory—Fairest—meant that I was intrigued to see how she’d go about the villain origin story for the notorious Queen of Hearts. Overall, I did enjoy this book, but I found it lacking on certain points, so I gave it 3 stars. This review is spoiler free, for the most part. Really the only “spoilers” are things you already know are going to happen if you’ve ever seen or read Alice in Wonderland.
Heartless functions as a prequel of sorts to Carroll’s Wonderland, taking place before Alice ever arrived. It focuses on Cath, the future Queen of Hearts, and her dream to open a bakery with her best friend Mary-Ann. Her parents, however, have other intentions for Cath. In the incredibly Victorian society of Hearts, securing a good marriage for their daughter is of utmost importance, and Cath’s parents have their sights set on marrying Cath to the King of Hearts. Most of the book is about this struggle between what Cath wants and what is expected of her.
“It is a dangerous thing to unbelieve something only because it frightens you.”
It goes without saying that this book is best suited to big fans of Alice in Wonderland. However, it had been a long time since I’d seen the Disney film, and longer still since I read the original story. I wouldn’t say that this hindered my reading, despite my knowledge being shaky at best. Really, it’s the world that’s going to be a big pull for any Alice in Wonderland fan, and on this, it didn’t disappoint. The setting was as wonderfully weird as you’d expect it to be, as were many of the characters. The world was very close to what I remember from the original, but Meyer still manages to bring her own interpretation to it. This is something that I really admire in Meyer’s writing generally, she manages a perfect balance between respecting the source material, and remaining original. To me, this book felt like a melting pot of every Alice in Wonderland adaptation; the wordplay made me think of the original text, the vivid descriptions of the weirdness and whimsy of the world made me think of the Disney film, while the darker aspects, such as the Jabberwock attacks, reminded me of the Tim Burton adaptation. It’s impressive that the book manages to touch on each and every one of them.
The characters in this book felt very distinct to me. The King of Hearts is mostly an idiot, and faintly insufferable, but he’s written so well that I couldn’t help but enjoy his moments in the book. Another favourite of mine was Hatta, who obviously later becomes The Mad Hatter. I completely loved his character, especially his mistrust and seeming dislike of Cath for most of the book. His character arc was great to read, and I’m really glad he featured so much in this. I have mixed feelings about Cath’s best friend, Mary-Ann. Often I felt that she wasn’t as developed as other characters in the book, given that she’s so normal, and this is Wonderland. I did enjoy her friendship with Cath, but at times I was all too aware of the power imbalance in their relationship, given that Mary-Ann is literally Cath’s servant. Given that she is Cath’s only female friend, too, meant that sometimes she felt like more of a prop for Cath’s story than a distinct character in her own right.
“The easiest way to steal something, is for it to be given willingly.”
I think another reason why this book fell a little short of the mark for me was because I felt really indifferent about the love interest, Jest. He and Cath share an instant connection, or attraction, that I found they started to call love far too quickly. It’s suggested that Cath has dreamed about Jest before, implying that their meeting was fate—which I can kind of forgive, because fate and destiny feature so heavily in this book. However, I’m not a huge fan of this technique, as feeling like you know someone isn’t really a substitute for actual relationship development. They do talk about how they hardly know each other, but this doesn’t deter them from professing their love for one another regardless. Jest is perfectly sweet, and if this were any other book I probably would have found him more charming. I just wasn’t convinced by their relationship, as it escalated from cute and flirty much too quickly. Really, so much of Cath’s character development, particularly in regard to the decisions she makes, hinges on her relationship with, and feelings for, Jest. Because I wasn’t particularly taken with either of those things, it did effect my reading of the book. I must say that I wasn’t particularly taken with Cath’s character arc depending so much on a man. However, given that the setting is so Victorian inspired, Cath’s life was always going to be about some man, which did make me feel bad for her, but I’m not certain that this was the point that was deliberately being made.
Cath herself is a very interesting character. She begins as a nice, fairly ordinary girl, with an exceptional talent for baking. She clearly has drive and ambition, and she hopes to stray from the path her parents have determined for her. Initially she’s a very likeable and relatable character. You can see how much she loves baking, and how much this passion motivates her. Also, as an aside, the descriptions of food in this book were incredible. I honestly can’t remember the last time reading a book made me so hungry! For all this, though, you can see glimpses of the person that Cath is going to become. She’s by no means perfect, and it was good to see little bits of this coming through even before things start to go horribly wrong for her. I will say that I think the change from Cath being Cath, to Cath being the Queen of Hearts that we all recognise, did happen quite suddenly. The hints were there, certainly, but they were too subtle and her change of character seemed to be somewhat instantaneous for me.
“These things do not happen in dreams, dear girl,” he said, vanishing up to his neck. “They happen only in nightmares.”
A lot of my issues with this book lie with the pacing. This book felt very, very slow. Obviously, we all know how Cath’s story is going to end, so it’s a hard balance between keeping it interesting, and maintaining a dread of what’s to come. Unfortunately, I don’t think that balance is struck quite right. Most of the book seems to focus on Cath trying to open her bakery—which is good, in a sense, as it means that she’s not easily deterred—but you know this isn’t going to happen. So while I admired her for doing this, I did wonder why we were spending so much time on it. Similarly, you know Cath is going to marry the King of Hearts, so the attempts to put this off also felt a little futile. Which, again, is kind of the point, but to me it made the book drag more than it made me feel bad for Cath. There were moments of action and tension that were really great, but they felt few and far between, and these moments of intensity were often followed by much slower passages, which meant that I felt that the book was either speeding toward its inevitable conclusion, or coming to a grinding halt. The odd pacing meant that I couldn’t enjoy other aspects of the book as much as I’d hoped.
Ultimately, I think I went into this with very high expectations because I love Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, and Heartless just didn’t really come close to them. It’s certainly one to check out if you’re an Alice in Wonderland fan, especially if you’re very familiar with it. Marissa Meyer’s writing is just as good as I’d expected it to be, so if you’ve been wanting to check out the Lunar Chronicles, but don’t quite want to commit to reading what is a fairly sizable series, this is an excellent place to start with Meyer’s writing.
If you’ve read Heartless I’d love to know what you thought of it! I know it’s been out elsewhere in the world for quite some time, but it’s finally available in the UK as of today!