Alexandria is a true-crime-loving librarian who's always out for a new spin on this popular genre and what it has to say about society.
Who Wouldn't Want to Be Queen?
It's often said that a story is only as good as its best villain and that a legendary villain therefore makes for an equally legendary story. Many of these villains have been highlighted in modern pop culture through books like Wicked and movies like Maleficent, which aim to give us a new look at iconic antagonists.
Just like fairy tale retellings, villain reimaginings and backstories have been hugely popular in both the adult and young adult spheres, which explains why Marissa Meyer, author of the popular Lunar Chronicles retellings, chose to take a stab at both. Heartless takes on the Queen of Hearts and challenges us to imagine a time when an evil queen was neither of those two things—and, perhaps more importantly, wasn't out for anyone's head.
In Meyer's version of events, Lewis Carroll's infamous mad queen began her life as an ordinary noblewoman named Cath. While her parents plot to marry her off to the King of Hearts to gain even more social standing, Cath dreams of opening a bakery with her best friend and maid, Mary Ann, and falling in love on her own terms. When she hits it off with the king's court joker, Jest, she finds herself yearning more and more for a simple life, but her parents' disapproval and an attack on Wonderland itself may put a damper on Cath's dreams for good.
My Take on the Setting
For those expecting Meyer's typical mix of fantasy and science fiction or a Wonderland that effortlessly blends technology and magic, Heartless might be a disappointment. While Meyer's Wonderland is certainly different from Carroll's—it's an interesting blend of nursery rhymes and poetry that features such characters as Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater and the Raven from Edgar Allan Poe's famous work—it's still, by and large, the same whimsical world of fantastical nonsense.
Oddly enough, this works pretty well for the story Meyer is trying to tell. While the Eastern Commonwealth of Lunar Chronicles is a more unique reimagining of a fairy tale world than the country of Hearts in Heartless, the latter is meant to blend into the original story far more than the former. In order for us to believe that Cath will eventually become the Queen of Hearts, Wonderland itself must resemble the Wonderland we know, and for the most part, it's an incredibly faithful portrayal.
My only real quibble with this Wonderland is that the concept of marrying for status is extremely widespread there, to the point where it can read more like a historical novel of Victorian Europe at times. In a land so contrary to conventional thought, one would think royalty would be much more lax with blood ties and arranged marriages. However, this is only a slight setback to the otherwise great worldbuilding Meyer provides.
My Take on the Plot
For those not acquainted with Marissa Meyer's novels, this book may seem to be a particularly daunting read at 464 pages. However, Meyer's writing style is fast-paced and addictive—so much so that I finished half the book in only a day. This is definitely a page-turner that will keep you up at night.
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While the plot itself seems somewhat cliché, much of its strength lies in its mystery and intrigue. New members of the court appear without announcement, a monster known as the Jabberwock ravages Wonderland, and no one knows where to turn or who to turn to. In fact, it's heavily implied from the beginning that the Jabberwock is a seemingly ordinary person with monstrous abilities.
It borrows just enough from the original Wonderland plot, including episodic journeys to faraway lands and encounters with the strangest of beings. The fantasy elements especially are reminiscent of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, in which Lewis Carroll's poem "The Jabberwocky" is greatly expanded into a threat that must be slain with a certain enchanted sword. However, even with these resemblances, Heartless makes these plot threads its own, focusing on a time before the Wonderland we know rather than during Alice's famous journey.
In fact, Alice herself never actually appears in the book, and that's likely its greatest strength. Without the characters we know, Wonderland regains the same sort of unfamiliar atmosphere that attracted people to it in the first place. No Alice adaptation should be predictable, as doing so shows a simplistic understanding of what made Carroll's original work great. This, above all, is what makes Heartless so readable—seeing the Queen of Hearts herself go through similar girlish adventures and experiences as the character who's most often contrasted with her is compulsively fascinating.
My Take on the Characters
Young adult romance can be a difficult genre to judge because it all too often falls into certain cliches—love at first sight, the mysterious and brooding boyfriend, and so on. Before reading Heartless, I didn't expect much from that front—though I liked Meyer's previous romantic subplots, it was hard for me to imagine a forbidden relationship with a court jester-type without believing the author was trying to imitate the Joker and Harley Quinn. I was ready to accept that it would be my least favorite part of the book.
However, Jest is a compelling character in his own right and probably one of the most unique young-adult love interests I've seen thus far. He's a strangely fascinating mixture of a man of mystery and a class clown, and I can see how the women of Wonderland would desire these seemingly contradictory traits in a man.
Similarly, Cath handles her roles as both noblewoman and baker well, and even if her "rebellious princess" type character is somewhat of a cliche, it works well for her. It's genuinely interesting to see that the Queen of Hearts wasn't always the born ruler she's often portrayed as in entertainment, similar to how Wicked portrays the Wicked Witch of the West as a jaded justice crusader. Hidden depths like these work to further flesh out characters that were originally meant to be one-note, and I can genuinely say this book made me appreciate the Queen of Hearts more (and made me that much more determined to win with her character in Disney Villainous).
Though Cath and Jest are definitely at the center of the book, the original Wonderland cast works quite well as side characters and Easter eggs in this reimagining. Jest was friends with the Mad Hatter before he went mad. The Cheshire Cat followed Cath around before he followed Alice. These little details add that much more to the classic characters.
Heartless might seem like just another frivolous young adult fantasy, but just like the sweets Cath makes, it combines familiar elements into a delightful and unpredictable concoction. On top of that, it's a rare young adult standalone that leaves the reader completely satisfied and blends straight into Carroll's original tale. For Alice in Wonderland enthusiasts of any age or lovers of children's classics as a whole, this is a must-read.