Heartless by Marissa Meyer is a standalone which tells the origin story of the Queen of Hearts. But before she was royalty, she was Cath, the daughter of a marquis who dreamed of opening a bakery with her maid. She would much prefer that to marrying the jovial but spineless king, who desires her hand, despite what her mother says about baking being below her. And when Jest, the new court joker, arrives in the kingdom of Hearts, Cath finds another reason to try to refuse the king.
But Cath’s problems aren’t the only things keeping her and Jest apart. Jest has come to Hearts for more important things than to be the court joker, and falling for Cath poses quite an obstacle…
Oh, and by the way, there’s also a Jabberwock on the loose.
As always, I found Meyer’s characters to be quite distinct and likable. Cath is so sweet and optimistic, and a little awkward, which intrigued me as to how she could possibly become the formidable Queen of Hearts. My favourite character, though, was Jest. I often find that romantic interests in young adult books end up falling into the “vaguely, conventionally attractive” category, and I find little bringing the two characters together other than “they both find the other physically attractive”. So I found it quite refreshing to come across a love interest as amusing and charming, and with such believable chemistry with our protagonist, as Jest.
At first, Heartless is quite a lighthearted, romantic read, but once Jest’s mission is revealed, the tension quickly ramps up. No matter how lovely and innocent the beginning, or how much hope it gives you that Cath will not become the Queen of Hearts, prepare for this book to break your heart.
Unfortunately, as the tension increased, I found that the characters were given less focus; they didn’t seem like themselves once put under pressure, but instead seemed to revert to generic concerned/scared characters.
The other thing that disappoints me about Heartless is how little about Wonderland we actually learn. There are odd little details, such as talking doorknobs and singing flowers, which I really loved as they seemed quite quirky in what was otherwise a Victorian setting with anthropomorphic animals. But I feel like the world in general, though interesting, could have been explored more than mere nods to the source material. Meyer had a great opportunity to expand Wonderland beyond what is already familiar, and it’s a shame that this potential wasn’t fulfilled.
I also wish she’d have explained a bit more. Yes, it is Wonderland, so of course things aren’t going to make complete sense, but at times I had unanswered questions that I feel could have been answered while still maintaining the nonsensical feel of Wonderland.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed reading this book. For something named Heartless, it actually has rather a lot of heart! (Plus some really lovely magical moments!) It’s definitely a great and believable backstory, and an interesting take on Lewis Carroll’s work.