Long before Alice fell down the rabbit hole… And before the roses were painted red… The Queen of Hearts was just a girl, in love for the first time.
From Marissa Meyer, The New York Times bestselling author of The Lunar Chronicles, comes a vision of Wonderland like none you’ve seen before, telling the untold story of the girl who would become the notorious Queen of Hearts.
At the time of writing this review Goodreads have rated this as 4.06 out of 5
Three luscious lemon tarts glistened up at Catherine. She reached her towel-wrapped hands into the oven, ignoring the heat that enveloped her arms and pressed against her cheeks, and lifted the tray from the hearth. The tarts’ sunshine filling quivered, as if glad to be freed from the stone chamber.
So I go waaaay off topic here and talk about fan fiction for a bit before I even crack onto the review. Despite the meandering I am going somewhere. I think. I don’t know. I can get just as lost as Alice.
I’ve been intrigued by Marissa Meyer for quite a while and for three reasons: –
- She writes fairy tale retellings
- She used to write fan fiction
- She participated in NaNoWriMo
Let me elaborate.
- I adore fairy tales in all their forms and love a retelling.
- For those who don’t know – fan fiction is fiction written by fans about characters/ worlds etc. from already existing pieces of fiction. There are debates around this practice as fan fiction isn’t necessarily seen by some as ‘true’ writing. Some writers like J.K Rowling don’t mind fan fiction being written about their work whilst others, such as George R.R. Martin oppose it. E.L James wrote Twilight fan fiction which became so popular among the fandom that she re-wrote it to make an original and then the world got ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ Ok, so maybe George R.R Martin has a point…
- NaNoWriMo is something that I have participated in myself and stands for National Novel Writing Month and is held in November each year. The goal is to write a minimum of 50,000 words of a novel in that time. The quality doesn’t have to be good as the aim is to just get the words out of your brain and onto the page. Marissa Meyer isn’t the only writer to publish a novel from NaNoWriMo and so this is rather encouraging for the average participant.
One of the questions often asked (well, by myself at least) is where fan fiction ends and a ‘retelling’ begins. Like I said, some authors genuinely don’t mind fan fiction while others consider it creative theft.
However, if we look around at bookshelves, bookstores and even bestselling lists you’ll find that there are many published writers whose work could be considered fan fiction.
Now personally, I don’t have a problem with this. Neil Gaiman (love you Neil!) won a Hugo Award for his short story ‘A Study in Emerald,’ which utilises both Sherlock Holmes and the Cthulhu Mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft. Fan fiction or retelling? You be the judge.
So now I’ve meandered down the rabbit hole and back, let’s look at Heartless, a book based on an original and incredibly popular piece of work.
‘Heartless’ is actually a good story. But it’s not great.
This story is how the Queen of Hearts became the Queen of Hearts and so we are introduced to some familiar characters along the journey; the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat and so on. We are also introduced to lovely, sweet Catherine, daughter of a Marquess who spends her time baking beautiful tarts and dreaming of opening a bakery.
This isn’t so much of a retelling as a ‘villain origin story’ in the same vein as ‘Wicked’ by Gregory Maguire. If you’ve read Alice in Wonderland or you know, don’t live under a rock, you’ll know the ending of Heartless. As Catherine’s transformation to the Queen of Hearts is inevitable it is the journey that becomes the most important. Gosh, this sounds rather introspective and philosophical doesn’t it? I swear this links to the review, I swear.
Basically, as the focus is on the journey then the writer needs to ensure it is a riveting and believable one. Believable doesn’t mean the setting (in this case we are dealing with a rather watered down Wonderland) but it means that we need to believe that the character would change from the person that they were into the person we know they will be. We need to believe that lovely, sweet Catherine who delights in pastries and eclairs will eventually delight in ordering the execution of all those who offend her. And boy, if we know anything about the Queen of Hearts, everything offends her.
Does this work? Yes and no.
Overall I enjoyed the story. The writing was easy to read and I found it pleasing to tie in the characters and events of Alice in Wonderland because I always like those little nods to the original and I love foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is my absolute favourite literary technique. I really don’t know what that tells you about the type of person I am, that I have a favourite literary technique.
What particularly stood out for me was the descriptions of the treats that Catherine creates (maybe it’s because my other love is sweets). I feel that ‘Heartless’ could have its very own companion cookbook and the love that Catherine has for baking truly shines through in the writing.
But there were some elements that I felt didn’t fully work. I predicted the very last sentence of the book about fifteen pages in. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing but I don’t know if that is what the author was hoping for. I think villain origin stories need to do something clever and offer something new and unexpected which unfortunately I didn’t feel was done here. As this was written for a Young Adult audience maybe Marissa Meyer felt it couldn’t go as dark and atmospheric as it probably could have had it been written for an adult audience.
The plot has a tendency to meander with a strong focus on lawn games and parties all designed to build up the love story which the plot hinges on. For me I think this is where the tart failed to bake. Hehehe. Sorry.* I wasn’t on board with the love story. This was a typical ‘love at first sight’ without much build-up. Catherine and Jest fall in love but I never understood why. The character development for both of them was surface level stuff only and as a result their love story didn’t feel particularly meaningful.
* Nope, not at all sorry.
Catherine actually stayed very constant, personality wise, until about fifty pages or so from the end when there is an event which triggered her change into the Queen of Hearts. I would have liked to have seen hints of what lied beneath all the way through the story and wished there was more build up as to how she became the Queen of Hearts – in personality, not in name. If someone goes from baker to decapitation obsessive I want to see darker hints of that coming through from the beginning. Can we really believe that it is a sole event that turns someone so strongly? This is why I feel this story could have benefited from being an adult book rather than a YA one.
Despite my criticisms I did find ‘Heartless’ to be quite a fun read. Though there are
shortbreads (sorry, I’ll stop) shortcomings this was by no means a bad book. It’s good fun but I don’t think it does itself any favours being a villain origin story of one of the most popular villains from one of the most popular stories of all times.
Aside from ‘Heartless’ and ‘Wicked’ are there any other villain origin stories or retellings I should check out? Recommendations warmly appreciated!