Heartless by Marissa Meyer

Rating 8.5/10
Hearts and Hubris

Before I began on Heartless, I got the pleasure of experiencing my lady’s reactions at second hand. These opened with a rather resigned “well this is rather fluffy, even for a YA book”, progressed to “I am getting really annoyed with the main character!”, and finally descended into the rather dire tempo of “I wish she would grow some balls!”. I was wondering if there was any hope for the protagonist, when suddenly there followed a soprano admonition of “Catherine!” in the key of startled, accompanied by a few arpeggios to the tune of “that was unexpected?” when the whole performance culminated with “wow! you’ve got to read this” my interest was definitely piqued.

Heartless is a prequel to Lewis Carroll’s 1863 classic Alice in Wonderland, being the history of one of the most recognizable characters in fiction; The Queen of Hearts. Set in the kingdom of hearts, a world of talking animals, animate furniture and occasional bouts of unpredictable magic, the story follows Lady Catherine Pinkerton, the 17-year-old daughter of the Marquess of Rockturtle cove.

Possessed of an astounding gift for baking, Cath dreams of breaking free of the dull aristocratic round of balls, tea parties and social niceties that makes up her life, and instead opening the finest bakery in all of Hearts. Unfortunately, Cath has caught the eye; or rather the pallet, of Hearts’ foolish and ineffective king and Cath’s mother the domineering Marchioness wants nothing more than her daughter to be Queen. This situation is further complicated when Cath finds herself captivated by Jest, the Kings’ new Court Joker. Yet the Joker is not all that he seems, and outside the narrow circle of court other forces are at play, forces that emanate from the near mythical country on the other side of the looking glass, the magical land known as Chess.

The first and most interesting thing about Heartless, is how it relates to its source material. Carroll’s book is of course a surreal and in places nonsensical dream which is more about the puns and the very typically Victorian odd situations as it is a book about a coherent fantasy world. Meyer does not explain that world, or offer any reasons as to why talking animals or playing cards exist, yet she does give us the idea of a world where people live their own lives and have their own very real concerns, concerns of types Carroll would not have considered in his harmless, clever book for children such as a girl forced unwillingly into marriage, or the tragic, rather than comic effects of madness, not to mention a little death, destruction and mayhem. Heartless therefore is not so much a literal history of the Queen of Hearts in the way that Carroll conceived and wrote about her, but a rather different story set in the same world, many of whose events resonate forward to what we do see in Alice. Despite this alternative approach however, I can’t fault Meyer for her obvious intensive love of the Alice books and her inclusion of so many details, from small allusions like the Mad Hatter’s name or the possible size changing properties of unknown foods, to major details such as the personalities of characters like the fussy White Rabbit or the moralistic Duchess. She even gives several poems, myths and legends alluded to by Caroll some notable plot significance, most notably the monstrous Jabberwocky. Yet despite so many references, Meyer never gets bogged down into simply name dropping for its own sake and just as Heartless is unquestionably a far more adult story, so several Alice related plot elements took on significances that were quite unexpected and often dark or poignant, such as the reasons behind the Hatter’s madness or the origin of the Mock Turtle.
 
Meyer’s style also is perfect for picking out allusions and references, since she has a gift for highlighting smaller details, especially some rather gorgeous descriptions of Cath’s various baked creations which play such a significant role in the story. It is through this eye for details that Meyer also is able to gently refer to works outside the world of Alice, from Harry Potter (through some wonderfully described pumpkin pasties), to Douglas Adams, and even include a hilarious nod to Edgar Allan Poe in the form of a raven who doesn’t just quoth “nevermore” at various moments, but also speaks in decidedly dolorous, Poe like verse as well. Raven also cleverly ties back to Carroll in providing several alternative answers to the mad Hatter’s riddle “why is a raven like a writing desk”.

For all this stylistic care however, Meyer’s descriptive attention was sometimes rather uneven, especially in the books landscapes. For instance, given the number of occasions we see Cath in the kitchen baking, it might have been nice, both for purposes of realism and for getting to know our protagonist to have the kitchen, and not just the things Cath makes there described a little more completely. This also meant it was a little too easy to spot a significant character from a background one by the attention Meyer spent on them, which is a shame since having things like playing card shaped courtiers fully described as opposed to just being present might have been nice.

Another minor stylistic issue is that for such an English world as Carroll’s, Meyer was not always careful with American language. Cath for example on one occasion speaks of “gram crackers” (not just American but also a brand which I’m pretty sure don’t export to 19th century fantasy kingdoms), she confuses cookies and biscuits, and on one occasion even biscuits and scones. She also speaks of someone marching at the “helm” of a column of soldiers rather than the head. Of course, since my lady is American and we’ve spent many happy hours wrangling about the merits of different flavours of English, it is possible I’m more sensitive to this sort of thing than most, particularly since Rebecca Soler who reads the audio version, though a highly gifted character actress is herself American.

In terms of its pacing, there is no denying Heartless moves rather slowly, though this is partly due to the type of story Meyer is trying to tell. Apart from the surreal Alice moments, Meyer represents the world of Hearts as rather like that of Jane Austin. A world of visiting cards, formal courtships, chaperones and reputation. This necessitates that at least a good part of the plot involves its characters interacting at social engagements such as balls, formal visits and tea parties albeit ones with various degrees of madness.

I was extremely disappointed to see that the back-cover information for Heartless actually lists in its first sentence a huge, great, steaming spoiler for the book’s ending. Needless to say, my lady mentioned no such spoiler when she recommended the book and I would strongly suggest anyone planning on reading Heartless just dive straight in. How Meyer evolves characters, some of the unexpected twists and false first impressions we get are truly impressive and it’s a shame to spoil any of them.

Bucking the trend of YA novels to always feature tough, independent protagonists, Cath begins the book as sweet, naïve and rather overly sheltered, not to mention very much under her parent's’ thumb (one reason for my lady’s initial exasperation), however seeing her change, grow and evolve through circumstances is truly a pleasure. Meyer seems to have a gift for character depiction since this is a book where even the minor players turn out to be more than they appear, and as for Catherine rarely have I seen an author write character development in such a pure sense, i.e. taking a character from one place at the start of the book, and showing how they journey to a very different place at the end of it. I did have the minor issue with Catherine that her ambition of opening a bakery felt rather too modern for such a setting, especially when her friend, the maid Mary Anne started somewhat anachronistically discussing market rates, supply and demand and profit margins.

Speaking of Mary Anne however, those who love reading friendships between complex characters which have their quirks and rough patches will appreciate the person who is essentially Cath’s surrogate sister although they are of different social classes, something which is nice to see especially since people forget that historically Victorian culture wasn’t quite as stultified and monolithic as it is often depicted.

I also liked how the King of Hearts, despite being cast almost immediately in the role of an unwanted potential husband is neither sadistic nor lecherous. He is simply good natured, foolish, ineffective and not overly endowed in the brain department. While this makes him of course completely out of the question as a match for Catherine, it also makes her position a more unique one than a lot of characters facing forced marriages in modern fiction, since it’s one thing to wish to avoid a vile suitor at all costs, quite another to have to reject an innocent but dim witted one.

As well as new characters, we did get a few twists on originals from Alice, notably the roguish and actually morally ambiguous Hatter. I did wonder when we first met him if he was perhaps a nod to Johnny Depp’s version of the character in the 2010 Alice film (a film which had far less respect for Lewis Carroll than Meyer did), as events continue and we learn more about him however, it becomes clear that Hatter is very much his own character, particularly given an interesting character twist that makes him rather different from the Hatter Alice meets later on.

The one character I did feel slightly short changed by was Jest, the court joker and very obvious love interest. Dashing, clever, accomplished at everything from magic tricks to music and of course hopelessly smitten with Catherine (he even has golden eyes). While Meyer does undoubtedly reveal enough hidden truths about Jest to make him play an interesting part in the plot, I did feel that he was a bit too idealised, especially when he starts appearing in dreams and whisking Cath away to illicit rendezvouses, for the record my lady disagrees with me on this point, though equally she tends to be the first to point out idealised female characters in books.

Though some of the slowness of the plot can be attributed to its structure and emphasis on characters and conversation, at the same time, I did notice even towards the end of the novel Meyer’s style still remained rather long winded and focused on discourse, despite the fact that at that stage events are climbing to a point, we’ve moved well beyond the safe social sphere and into far less pleasant territory.

One thing I did admire however, is the way Meyer starts to make the world of Wonderland darker and more threatening, to the point where some elements almost reminded me of Neil Gaiman, particularly when it becomes clear this is a world where characters are not safe.

he final conclusion is a very apt end to the story, employing prophecy, destiny and character revelations. Unfortunately, having the knowledge from the back cover would likely make the conclusion rather more a forgone one and consequently far less effective due to feeling inevitable, which is another reason I absolutely recommend avoiding it if you can, indeed given that Meyer obviously intends to keep the reader guessing just how the book will resolve I do wonder whether she intended the back cover to be as blatant as it is.

Despite its at times slow pace and its rather too obvious Joker I did very much enjoy Heartless. Take a large serving of Lewis Carroll, add a table spoon of Jane Austin, season with a bit of Gaiman like twisted fairy tales and a likable, if rather sheltered protagonist and you have something sweet, fluffy and delicious on the outside, but with a dark, and troubled centre within.

Now I want some cake!

This Heartless book review was written by

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