The Story: [from GoodReads:]
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.
My Take: I love the Lunar Chronicles and for good reason: it has dynamic characters; a fun premise; an ingenious take on the stories’ respective fairy tale inspirations; compelling drama; solid pacing; and plenty of suspenseful, exciting twists and turns. So, naturally, I was expecting the same for this novel, which is the imagined backstory of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland‘s villainous Queen of Hearts before she turned bad. Sadly, I found Heartless to be lacking though not entirely unreadable. Instead, I believe this would appeal to a particular audience who favors romance-driven stories and less so by readers expecting more of the same level of character dynamics and action they came to expect from Meyer’s previous efforts.
That being said, there were elements here that I genuinely liked and even enjoyed. For starters, Heartless isn’t lazy in terms of world-building. While Meyer could have been tempted to simply incorporate Wonderland imagery and characters without building upon them, she avoids doing so. Instead, her version of Wonderland feels revived and fresh while still paying homage and respect to Carroll’s original creation. We witness bizarre creatures and see familiar Wonderland denizens, from the Cheshire Cat to the Mad Hatter, placed in new settings and situations. These all help craft the book’s quirky yet dark tone that, again, is redolent of Carroll’s work but that also avoids being a copycat work. Also, there are two plot twists I didn’t see coming (which I won’t discuss as they count as spoilers), and these reminded me of the narrative sleights of hand I loved so much in the Lunar Chronicles.
Also, Catherine (Cath for short) and Jest were fun characters. Catherine wants to be a baker yet can’t escape her mother’s meddling hands to marry her off to Wonderland’s bachelor king. Some of the book’s best descriptions come in the form of Catherine’s tasty treats, and all I’ll say about those is that if you are hungry upon reading this book, you’ll be hunting for some cupcakes by the time you’re done!
Similarly, I love the level of realistic detail we’re given regarding Catherine’s hobby as it makes it seem like a real hobby, not merely a trait bestowed upon her just to make her interesting. On a symbolic level, Catherine’s love of baking reflects an inward desire for control. Just as she controls what she bakes and how she bakes it, so she also wants to be the author of her own fate. However, just as she can’t always control how one of her treats might turn out in the end, so she realizes that not every person or situation can be managed under her thumb. That, I believe, deeply frustrates her and plays a small part in who she becomes later on. Likewise, while Catherine has reservations about a courtship and marriage of pure convenience, she’s not 100% anti-romance and wants to steer the course of her life in this regard as well. She wants to fall in love on her own terms and she wants it to be a real connection, not something she’s obligated to do, yet, again, she finds that love is not subject to her control.
Jest, the Joker, was a dark, quirky character, and I was glad he was portrayed with this mysterious side to him rather than turned into a comic relief character (though, be forewarned, he does seem to emit qualities akin to the infamous “bad boy” trope). As soon as he comes on the scene, you want to know more about him and what he’s after, which is always a plus as it indicates that the character in question is three-dimensional rather than flat. His romance with Catherine seemed realistic (though rather quick) and the book avoids relying upon a strict love triangle trope though there are vestiges of it present (as the Wonderland king tries to win Catherine’s hand while Jest is intent in sweeping her off her feet).
However, I feel it’s only fair to say that, from the start, I thought Heartless was going to be chiefly a Wonderland retelling focusing on a pre-villian Queen of Hearts with some romance thrown in. Thus, I assumed this novel would be high on action and adventure with a downplayed love story in the background, much like the Lunar Chronicles series. However, Heartless is a reversal of that equation and, instead, is a full-on romance set in a fantasy environment that, unfortunately for me, puts the action and adventure on the back burner for the most part. That’s not to say Heartless is terrible as it isn’t, but this is a case where it’s good to know what you’re getting into story-wise as I sense this novel won’t appeal to everyone thanks to the plot’s focus.
Because this is a romance-driven story (and a forbidden romance-driven story at that), the plot seems sluggish. I read through the first twelve chapters, wondering when the actual story was going to start, which is never a good sign. Granted, the pace does pick up when a rampaging monster gets introduced, but for the most part the story focuses on Catherine trying to make a name for herself as a baker and her sundry secret meetings with Jest. I started speed reading most of the chapters comprising act two and early act three as there isn’t much else the novel focuses on other than these two characters.
Near the end, a tragic event I didn’t see coming sets Catherine off to become the wicked queen, but the transformation seemed a bit too quick and convenient, and even the novel’s parting words are a bit too on-the-nose regarding who Catherine is destined to be. I’m not sure if this novel is intended to be a stand-alone work or serve as the first book in a series but, regardless, the final pages end cliffhanger-style, which may or may not be to everyone’s liking.
For as much as I loved the Lunar Chronicles series, and for everything I felt those books executed brilliantly, Heartless fell desperately flat. In short, this is a color-by-number, female-fronted YA, forbidden romance tale only it’s set in Wonderland, which does add color to a rather bland story formula. This type of story has been executed before in terms of passionate, forbidden love involving a leading lady and a mysterious “bad boy” love interest. In the end, while this novel does present a fresh, new take on Carroll’s Wonderland, it unfortunately serves up a rather unimaginative YA romance. In the end, it’s a slight shame that, with all of the fun ingredients supplied to it, all Heartless serves up a rather familiar recipe.
Content: Content-wise, this novel is geared more for teens and adults (perhaps ages 15 and up) rather than anyone younger.
Language – Essentially none. If there were any profanities uttered, they were mild and few and far between.
Violence – Violence is non-graphic though the peril factor goes up when villainous monsters go on the rampage (it’s worth noting that a character dies as the result of such an attack). In the same way, by the end of the story, Catherine evolves into her “off with their head” persona, complete with an execution.
Sexual Content – None, though chesmitry clearly smolders between Catherine and Jest, and the couple share their fair share of on-page kisses.
Overall, Heartless is a departure from Meyers’ other works which, in and of itself, makes it worth checking out to see how she handles a different genre. However, fans of the Lunar Chronicles series expecting this to be more of the same will be disappointed as this novel is driven by romance, not action, political intrigue, or an abundance of plot twists and turns. Thus, if slow-burning love stories in a fantasy setting are more to your liking, then Heartless might be a delight. But if you crave a more action/adventure in your retellings, then this novel might not entirely satisfy. Therefore, if the Lunar Chronicles was like a seven-layer tuxedo cake, then Heartless is a vanilla sheet cake: generically good and unoffensive but a bit one note as it lacks varied flavors and textures.