Author: Marissa Meyer
Publishing: November 8th 2016 by Feiwel & Friends
Source: BEA (now BookExpo)
Genre: YA; Fantasy; Retelling; Romance
Date Read: December 2016
Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland and a favorite of the unmarried King, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, she wants to open a shop and create delectable pastries. But for her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for a woman who could be a queen.
At a royal ball where Cath is expected to receive the King’s marriage proposal, she meets handsome and mysterious Jest. 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 a secret courtship.
Cath is determined to choose her own destiny. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.
Marissa Meyer has been a force to be reckoned with since the very early days of my blogging career. I followed the release of her Lunar Chronicles series with intense anticipation & dedicated myself to being a loyal fan of her work. When it was announced that Meyer would be releasing a standalone novel I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. I wrote in a Waiting On Wednesday (all about Heartless) that although I do love series sometimes I really struggle with them–often standalone function much better for me (more on that at another time). However, when it was announced that Heartless was to be prequel of sorts to Alice in Wonderland I was… sort of disappointed! I’ve never been much of a fan of Alice in Wonderland but upon reading Heartless I have come to realize that this notion is entirely derived from the Disney movie. Now I feel quite bashfully embarrassed to have considered Heartless (and the Lewis Carroll original) with such disdain!
My journey to obtain a copy of Heartless before the release date is one full of scrambling–but also joy. On the first full day of BEA16 myself (and several other hundred book lovers) spent hours standing as close to the Macmillan booth as possible, waiting for the ARC drop/signing cards to be passed out. During that time I networked, discussed books with newfound friends–overall just had a lovely time bonding with a large group of people over our love for Meyer’s work. When it came time to line up I was lucky enough to obtain a ticket and joyfully brought my boxed copy up to Meyer to sign. She and her team were absolutely lovely! The highlight of that interaction was that they remembered me from the Cress release party several years earlier. But as anyone who knows my reading habits can attest, I am an incredibly moody reader. So even though I had the ARC for several months it wasn’t until this Winter Break that I actually had the motivation and desire to crack it open. I’m really glad I did 😉
It seems only proper to open my true review with the same quote that serves as Heartless‘ epigraph:
“I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion––a blind and aimless Fury.
This epigraph left a looming question in my mind throughout the novel…How does this sweet girl, whose only joy in life is baking somehow morph into one of the most angry and vengeful characters in all of literature? This was actually an ongoing frustration because I was torn between the fact that I didn’t really like Catherine (or Cath as she is often refereed to) and the fact that it was difficult to see her transformation becoming a reality. It wasn’t until upon finishing the novel that I came to realize that while no, it takes several terrible moments for the hatred of the Queen of Hearts has to bubble up in Cath–she really is a terrible person from the start. With this revelation my entire perceptive on Heartless changed and it felt wrong to continue the review without noting that.
The beauty of Heartless–to me–is that it has such an innocent beginning. Meyer introduces Cath and the land of Hearts with such joy and whimsicalness. I feel as though I’ve been duped with naivety about what was to come! Readers who know Meyer for her detailed descriptions will find them in Heartless just as in The Lunar Chronicles but the fantasy element is so intense, so purposeful, Meyer works constantly to remind the reader that the land of Hearts is not like the world we know. It was lovely in these opening moments (which honestly take up almost half the book… there’s a lot of setup!) to recognize characters from Carroll’s story and other nursery-rhyme-esque work and see how they function similarly or differently in Meyer’s world. I was particularly fond of Raven’s references to Edgar Allen Poe–whether that be speaking only in rhyme or his frequent response of “Nevermore”.
As the story develops the reader easily sympathizes with Cath. How strange to look back on it now, but for a time Cath seemed burdened by the advances of the bumbling, foolish King of Hearts all the while the actions of the Joker seemed rather mysterious, romantic. I feel as though the fantastic character development that Meyer is known is lost a bit in Heartless BUT it is harder to fit such development into a singular book. I found that while the secondary characters lacked development the evolution of Cath was rather extraordinary. As I noted above I found that a lot of her infamous characteristics as the Queen of Hearts were actually there all along, the beauty of Meyer’s writing is that it’s not until the very end that the reader is able to see that. Cath so easily feeds into the reader’s natural sympathy that it’s not until her transformation that I found myself going “oh shit!!! I also can’t help but wonder if leaving the other characters in the novel elusive and fantastical allowed Cath’s evolution to shine through all the more brighter…perhaps this was an intentional choice!
I found that Heartless had a good deal of mystery as well. Not just the backstories of several characters remaining almost entirely unrevealed but also the intense subplot regarding the Jabberwock. I am not familiar enough with the text of Alice in Wonderland to know if there is any connection here to Carroll’s original work (but hey if there is…please tell me!) but I felt as though the addition was a welcomed distraction to some of Cath’s moping in the middle portion of the book. That being said… some of Meyer’s clues were less than subtle, and Cath’s “it’s all so clear now” moment felt a little like… well DUH. So I suppose I’m rather skeptical if this aspect of Heartless was executed a successfully as Meyer’s hoped. Unless… well here I go again question the intention but it would be rather clever if Meyer wanted the reader to really know what was going on just to make Cath herself look like an even bigger fool. Y’all, the possibilities are endless.
I think the most surprising aspect of this novel for me was the romance. I just…didn’t feel it. I didn’t understand why Cath loves Jest and Jest loves Cath–but I don’t think we were supposed to. In Meyer’s other novels I always felt some sort of satisfaction when the characters got together–because of the hardships I knew they had faced to get together and how well they fit one another. But in reality, the reason I didn’t feel that in Heartless is because Cath is not a likable character. She is selfish and mean and while she suffers at the hands of some of the people around her as well, she makes no efforts to solve her anguish with kindness. So rather, it’s not that the romance of Heartless wasn’t ROMANTIC–it’s that I didn’t myself love the characters. And that, my friends, is where I think that Meyer really served the character of the Queen of Hearts well. While of course she didn’t start off as a conniving and bloodthirsty mega bitch… she’s already on her way there by the time Heartless starts, and unfortunately some terrible events accentuate the worst attributes in Cath. And THAT is how we come full circle to Cath–the Queen of Hearts– as a “blind and aimless Fury”.
When I finished Heartless my immediate text to my boyfriend was “gahhhh it was so good and so bad at the same time” and I can’t help but now disagree with my former self. While Heartless was certainly not perfect, I think that’s a poor standard to be held to. With this novel Meyer transcended her previous work in a way that was both deliciously fascinating and utterly pleasing. I am certain that every choice had the utmost consideration behind it. I think that the biggest trap readers might fall into is not letting Meyer evolve into a multi-faceted writer. Sci-fy and fantasy? Not the same. Series vs. standalone? Not the same. The most I can hope from Meyer in the future is a continued crusade to push not only her own boundaries as a writer, but our boundaries as readers as well.