Book Review – “Queen of Hearts”

Queen of Hearts book cover
The Story:
[From GoodReads:]
As Princess of Wonderland Palace and the future Queen of Hearts, Dinah’s days are an endless monotony of tea, tarts, and a stream of vicious humiliations at the hands of her father, the King of Hearts. The only highlight of her days is visiting Wardley, her childhood best friend, the future Knave of Hearts — and the love of her life. When an enchanting stranger arrives at the Palace, Dinah watches as everything she’s ever wanted threatens to crumble. As her coronation date approaches, a series of suspicious and bloody events suggests that something sinister stirs in the whimsical halls of Wonderland. It’s up to Dinah to unravel the mysteries that lurk both inside and under the Palace before she loses her own head to a clever and faceless foe.

My Take: I’ll just start with this – this is not your grandma’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland retelling. This is not even your mom’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland retelling. This is more like if Wednesday Addams decided to retell Alice, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it is, indeed, “dark and gloomy.”

The best way I can summarize the tone of this novel is if you had a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, tore out all of the pages pertaining to Alice, extracted the pages dealing with the Queen of Hearts, put those in a blender, mixed in random pages from any of Neil Gaiman’s books, and liquefied. What you would be left with would be a dark, curious, pulpy smoothie that may not be to all reading tastes. (Note: Please don’t actually put book pages in a blender. A good smoothie does not paper make.)

Myself, I was split on this novel: there were portions and characters I really enjoyed and there were others I thought were just okay or didn’t work for me. But as the good and more enjoyable portions outweighed the less enjoyable parts, I decided to award this book three solid stars rather than two on Goodreads.

For starters, I want to give a quick shout out to this cover (because I’m a sucker for a good/cool cover), which actually looks better in person. I own a hardcover edition and the dust jacket has a brushed, suede-like quality to it, which I really like as it doesn’t look like the typical cheap, glossy dust jacket you more commonly see. Plus, the novel’s title is in raised red letters that grab your eye. The playing card image design is ultra-cool and the level of detail on Dinah’s face is elegant even though it’s rendered entirely using shadowy shades save for some very appropriate crimson lipstick.

Overall, the physical presentation of this book is eye-catching and tastefully done, so serious kudos to the book’s designer and the art department.
Applause clap critic

Now back to the novel. My favorite aspects of this book were some of its settings and Charles, Dinah’s mad brother. Wonderland Palace is gorgeously described and I could easily imagine it in my mind. For me, large-scale indoor settings can be hard to render on the page because the question that usually arises is how much detail should be shown. On one end of the description spectrum, you can give too many details and the reader feels bogged down with unnecessary floor plans and lists of decor. On the other end, the reader feels like the action is occurring in a black box with no details to ground it in. Thankfully, Queen of Hearts avoids either trap and allows readers to easily imagine its principle settings without feeling disconnected or unduly burdened. I could perfectly envision the throne room, chapel, and even the red stained glass windows of Charles’ bedroom. While this might seem like a minor point to some readers, I really do appreciate good description that makes me devise a strong imagining of what I’m reading.

Also, I enjoyed some of the characters albeit not most of them. Dinah, the lead character who – as we all know – is no heroine, at least tries to do the right thing at times. But you can clearly see the inner workings of a villainess in the making. For now, she’s easy to sympathize with due to the way her father ignores and abuses her. Her anger at him is completely understandable as is her fear. Knowing she is the future queen, she agrees, for a time, to play along with his twisted mind games for the sake of replacing him on the throne. However, I thought the king was a little too one-sided as he was just purely evil with no redeeming qualities. Even a villain can have traits that, at least in isolation, are admirable, such as the ability to plan, lead, or exert reason or intelligence. But the King of Hearts is just despicable and, quite frankly, doesn’t even seem like that good of a king. While I didn’t hate his character, I hated the person he was yet at the same time I wasn’t enthralled by his level of villainy.

My favorite character is Dinah’s little mad brother, Charles, who, in his spare time, makes unique hats. Though he doesn’t get many scenes, the moments he does share on the page with his sister are solemnly precious. He is a character of pure innocence who has been cast aside by both his father and the world. Yet his childlike wonder and creative eye are endearing in a non-saccharine way. In fact, I actually liked him slightly more than Dinah as Dinah could have a whiny, selfish streak that didn’t quite make me a fan at times. Yet Charles is a real sweetheart. But other than Dinah and Charles, none of the other characters were particularly memorable, including Dinah’s love interest, Wardley, who seemed tacked on just for the sake of having a love interest.

In the same way, this novel tries to reinvent the Wonderland wheel in a way that I suspect may not appeal to everyone. Die-hard fans of the original source material might be appalled at the treatment its characters receive here, but I, for one, didn’t quite have such a harsh reaction. Some of the adaptations work, such as turning the various castes of Cards into actual people with various functions unique to their caste. However, some toe the line to being phoned in, such as making the Cheshire Cat a human character who sports a toothy grin and is even creepier than his feline counterpart and causing Charles to be a stand in for the Mad Hatter. Therefore, this doesn’t seem so much like a retelling as a re-imagining, which is fine provided you’re willing to not going to compare this novel to the source material of which it really bears only a pale resemblance.

Likewise, this novel carries a very dark tone, almost befitting a Gaiman tale with the same creep factor of an adult Gaiman tale as opposed to one more geared for younger readers (think more Neverwhere than The Graveyard Book). Some of the darker elements here work, such as turning the King of Hearts into an abusive father, but some are a bit too much, such as the Black Tower, which becomes a principle setting halfway through the book. Here, the kingdom’s most nefarious denizens are imprisoned but their living conditions and treatment are appalling. The novel hones in on one particular prisoner who is literally bound by poisonous roots that work their way into her body cavities. (And if that description made your hair curl, that’s nothing to the details the novel provides.) Creepy settings deserve creepy descriptions and I take no issue with that. But sometimes paragraph upon paragraph of such starts to feel overdone, and this is especially true in the chapters (and there are several) set in the Black Tower.

Furthermore, this novel just seems to end. I suppose one might call it a cliffhanger but, rather than leave readers with even some slight degree of closure, the action just stops. It’s like if you were watching a Jason Bourne-style car chase and the film just cuts off in mid-action. It’s a bit jarring and I wasn’t entirely happy with the way the novel ended though it does force you to read the follow up novel, which is what any book ending should do. But for me, it simply slams on the brakes rather than come to a smooth, complete stop.

Content: This novel is definitely intended for teens and adults, and probably older teens at that.
Language – Essentially none, other than a few proclamations of “oh gods.”

Violence – There are scenes of bloody violence, from minor stabbings to detailed decapitations. Torture is both eluded to and described in the chapters set in the Black Tower, and while for the most part we’re never fully told what the torture consists of, it’s not too difficult to deduce that it’s unbelievably inhumane and relentless. However, some prisoners are shown being tortured, such as in the case of one female prisoner who is, essentially, physically assaulted by plant roots.

Sexual Content – While there are no sex scenes, there are times when Dinah and Wardley kiss and fondle each other while clothed, but it never leads to anything further. Dinah imagines what it might feel like to have Wardley sleep with her (in a sexual context) but her thoughts don’t go any further than that single, non-graphic musing. Some of the Card soldiers and wardens of the Black Tower display sexual menace towards Dinah and other female characters, thus rape or sexual favors are implied as a form of coercion but nothing is ever shown. Lastly, some characters make lewd comments (such as one tower guard remarking that female prisoners don’t need fingers or other body parts in order to deliver sexual favors).

The Run-Down:
Um afraid scared critic
Overall, Queen of Hearts will be an acquired taste and, personally, I was split in my feelings about it. The descriptions and some of the characters I really enjoyed, and it does serve as a fast-paced read. However, the darker elements were a bit too dark for my liking and the abrupt ending made me feel like I was missing something. In the end, fans of anything Alice will probably check this out though be forewarned – this isn’t a strict retelling of the original source material. While some readers might enjoy this stark change of pace, some might prefer a more character-faithful retelling.

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