Book Review: Heartless [by Marissa Meyer]

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Image (c) goodreads.com

I’m not generally a reader of YA, although I do find myself gravitating towards books like these (I like fairytale retellings, but I’m also disappointed by most of them).

I don’t really know how my fascination with Carroll’s Alice began, but I’ve always loved it. There was a time when I used to know poems like “You are old Father William” and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” by heart. Wonderland is like a capsule of a dream childhood, a logic-nonsense world. Nothing like the childhood I had, but childlike on the surface, and always, always, a potential to grow darker. (Although if you’ve played American McGee’s Alice, you’ve probably already seen that.)

Heartless is essentially a ‘how it came to be’ tale. If you’re at all familiar with the Alice books (more specifically the first), you’ll know the Queen of Hearts (not to be confused with the Red Queen). And you’ll know she was portrayed as a raging, screaming bloodthirsty monarch (although a large number of the beheadings she ordered were not executed) feared by pretty much everyone in Wonderland. Marissa Meyer writes her backstory. I wasn’t wholly unfamiliar with Meyer; I mean I’ve read (or skimmed) the Lunar Chronicles, which I thought were interesting (the need to make a heterosexual pairing out of practically every main character put me off; there were like, what…four couples?) and I’d had my eye on this one for a while, if only for my (reluctant) interest in Wonderland.

So. The Queen of Hearts. In Heartless, she’s Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of the Marchioness and Marquess of Rock Turtle Cove, perhaps future-bride of the King of Hearts. But all Cath wants to do is bake; she has this dream she’s been building since she was a child – she wants to open a bakery with her maid Mary Anne. Obviously, her parents (and society) have other plans. Such a thing is the height of impropriety for a noblewoman, not least a noblewoman who has bigger fish to fry, like marrying the king and having royal kids. It’s funny how, even in Wonderland, where there are talking animals, treacle wells, prophecies, croquet matches with flamingoes and hedgehogs, we still can’t seem to escape the age-old establishment of sexism. And by funny, I mean, it’s getting kind of old to see this recur in every fantasy novel. (I’m gonna come back to this. It’s annoying enough that I should.)

Meyer has done a commendable job, though. The world in her books is alive, charming, funny. (At least, for the first half of the book.) It’s easy enough to follow that anyone who isn’t familiar with Wonderland would be interested, but it’s populated with all the old faces (the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare and the Mad Hatter – Haigha and Hatta, if you recall, from Through the Looking Glass, in the chapter about the Lion and the Unicorn – the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar, and…even the Jabberwocky) and has a similar remarkable colour and depth. It’s hard to get across the same tone while still telling a good story – Carroll did, after all, write the book for children, and this is unquestionably a little darker. I appreciated that aside from all the major chunks of inspiration Meyer took from his books, she also incorporated little extra hints (like easter eggs) for those of us who are familiar with the novels. The first half of the book is just a delight.

“Cath’s attention drifted back to the closed pie-safe, the tarts hidden behind its wire mesh. ‘You’re worried that the King might become shorter if he eats one?’
Cheshire snorted. ‘On the contrary, I’m worried that I will turn into a house should I eat one. I’ve been minding my figure, you know.’”

Cath’s problems, however, rapidly start to get out of hand when it seems the king is interested, not just in her pastries, but also in marrying her. And the new court clown – Jest – complicates things, because instead of being attracted to the king, she is attracted to him. I expect romance in YA, but I wasn’t particularly any more or less sold by this one, it struck me as a little less instant than the run-of-the-mill YA novel, but still immediate enough to be noted. The book is a little too heavy-handed with the romance, and it just wasn’t very effective to me, particularly seeing as how central Jest becomes to Cath’s life and her decision-making.

A lot of issues stem from this. The second half of the book is definitely the darker half, not just with the main plot but with other interesting features – Hatta’s allusions to his own mental state, the three Sisters who guard the treacle well (my personal favourite), the Jabberwocky – but Cath’s love for a man she barely knows colours too many important decisions. Her ardent passion for baking, described and pictured so well in the first half, seems to flag. A childhood dream she’d harboured for so long is just gone, and she totally gives up on it (for reasons explained, but honestly, I just wasn’t sold on that; Cath may be young but if she believed it was that impossible surely she would’ve given up before the book even began). She pushes away people she knew from childhood, and Jest, a man she’s known for maybe a few weeks, someone she’s had a handful of interactions with, becomes her entire focus. I’m not going to say it wasn’t believable; people can, at any time, fall in love with anyone, but for me, it just wasn’t believable enough. Still, I believed it up to a point, and I suppose I’m reluctantly convinced.

Because, in spite of all this, I think one of Meyer’s biggest achievements is in Cath’s transformation. We all know how she ends up, but her journey, from a tender-hearted young royal to an icy monarch filled with rage is rendered with care and detail, and, her motivations aside, I think it makes for a decent characterisation. Her transformation is the most heartbreaking. My thoughts on this probably come across as rather confused; what I mean is that Meyer writes Cath as a whole well enough that I suppose I’ll let the pieces of the romantic puzzle fall into place in my mind (whether I like it or not).

“She rounded on him, teeth flashing. ‘I am not empty. I am full to the brim with murder and revenge. I am overflowing and I do not think you wish for me to overflow on to you.’”

An issue I had with the book, which I was hoping would be resolved, was Hatta’s attitude towards Cath. I don’t really know why modern interpretations (I’m thinking of Burton’s Alice) have taken to portraying The Hatter as a kind of tough-love character who comes across as more of a hypocrite. Despite his own agenda that doesn’t really spell out anything good for Cath (as we later learn), he thinks it’s totally fine to criticise her (and his abhorrence is only partly because of her social class, which would have been justifiable). I’m aware that Wonderland operates on its own kind of logic, but this vindictiveness – blaming her for something she couldn’t help, she didn’t want, struck me as just another way of victimising a girl already trapped in society’s jaws. I wasn’t impressed. 

Other small issues of note: Meyer doesn’t include a map, nor give any geographical specifics, so I’m kind of lost as to where Hearts and Chess (both ruled by their respective kings and queens) are in the world. Are they the only two kingdoms? Another issue I had – Margaret Mearle, a Count’s daughter, and a girl Cath has grown up knowing, who spews morals which make very little sense. Cath, who otherwise seems quite nice, can never go without bringing her ‘ugliness’ into the narration. I don’t really see why this is relevant, or why a character like Cath would even do this. Does the fact that she’s an unpleasant person have some correlation to her looks? Are we really still following that kind of shallow logic? I have no problem with Cath thinking this, of course, because people are human. But there is no authorial voice or cross-check by any other character to call her out on it. Cath’s distastefulness regarding her looks strikes me as extreme and odd, Margaret is referred to as “unbearably attractive” which just makes very little sense. Cath personally might find her so, but one hardly needs to regurgitate beauty is in the eye of the beholder (although I just did) to understand that such a thing is perception-based. If we lived in a different time, where women were not demonised for being ‘ugly’/’plain’ (whatever that implies) then perhaps this wouldn’t carry much gravity. But it carries a great deal of gravity now.

Well, I think, those misgivings aside, I quite enjoyed this. It was interesting enough, with plenty of new elements. If, at some point, you’ve read and loved Carroll’s Alice, you’ll probably find this a worthwhile read. Meyer also incorporates little nuggets of  parting wisdom in that unique Carrollian style which I have a soft spot for. I definitely enjoyed the first half of the book a little more, but the second half deserves praise too. It might not have been what I wanted it to be, but it was still quite a feat, that gradual shift from light to dark. I was, in fact, forced to reexamine how flawed Wonderland was – apart from the obvious. I actually wish Meyer had spent a little more time examining moralities, but sadly, that didn’t happen. As a whole, this book definitely exceeded my expectations for an average YA fantasy. I’m glad to have read it.

All quotes used credited to the respective work. 

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