Jest said you had no reason to stay, but he was wrong. There is always a reason to stay. Always a reason to go back. It’s best not even to look, not even to guess. Turn around. Drink the elixir. Go through the Looking Glass and never look back.
Long before she was the terror of Wonderland, she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love. Catherine may be one of the most desired girls in Wonderland, and a favorite of the unmarried King of Hearts, but her interests lie elsewhere. A talented baker, all she wants is to open a shop with her best friend. But according to her mother, such a goal is unthinkable for the young woman who could be the next queen.
Then Cath meets Jest, the handsome and mysterious court joker. 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 an intense, secret courtship. Cath is determined to define her own destiny and fall in love on her terms. But in a land thriving with magic, madness, and monsters, fate has other plans.
* * * *
4 / 5
I read Heartless after it overwhelmingly topped a poll I did and, friends of Goodreads, you did not let me down. I enjoy the odd romance book, which is essentially what this is with the occasional action related side-plot, but still I was surprised by how much I liked this. Another confession: I have never read any of Meyer’s other works, so I cannot compare to her Lunar Chronicles works in terms of writing style or characters. Heartless is an Alice in Wonderland prequel, a Queen of Hearts origin story, the tale of Lady Catherine Pinkerton an aspiring baker and lover of confectionary who is a favourite of the King. Cath doesn’t much want to marry him, even before Jest and his Raven waltz their way into her life bringing magic and wonder that she had only dreamed of.
Murderer. Martyr. Monarch. Mad.
I didn’t quite feel like the setting of Heartless was bizarre enough to be Wonderland. Our setting is the land of Hearts, the other side of the Looking Glass from Chess where the Red and White Queens war, and whilst it incorporates lots of little bits from Alice in Wonderland it falls short of capturing the wonder and incredulity of the original. There’s the Crossroads, and the ostrich croquet, the Caterpillar, and the Cheshire Cat (who was quite well done) and the Hatter but there was still something missing. Heartless had all the ingredients but the cake wasn’t baked, so to speak.
Reading Heartless was also an interesting and emotional experience because anyone with a passing familiarity with Alice in Wonderland knows how the story ends. Sweet and passionate Catherine Pinkerton is going to be fury incarnate: off with their heads! Every time that I got drawn into the romance I forgot this little fact, only to remember and have my heart broken a little. Heartless is good in the same sort of way that fanfiction is good to read: the author doesn’t need to spend much time elaborating on the setting or some of the characters because it’s presumed that the reader already has some knowledge. And you really need that knowledge to elevate Heartless from something decent to an emotional tragedy.
“I do not want his generosity, or his kindness, or any other favours!” Her mother sneered. “Then you are a fool.”
“Good. I’ve become rather fond of fools.”
I sympathised a lot with Cath. I’ve seen a lot of reviewers call her flat and weak-willed, which I think is rather unfair. Frankly I can think of very little worse than being handed an ultimatum like the one she was given: marry, have sex with, and bear the children of a man you barely know and have no physical or romantic attraction with, or reject the King (I certainly wouldn’t want to make a King unhappy) and be disowned and cast out by her (abusive) parents with no prospects. Yes, she fails to make her intentions clear to the King which is rather unfair to him; call Cath spineless if you will, and as many reviewers have, but that sounds like a really horrifying situation to me. If Cath got disowned, she can’t run her bakery – who would lease a building to a woman shunned by society, the King, and her own family? Add into the mix that she finally experienced what it might be like to love someone and be loved in return, I can’t blame the girl for “leading on” the King on.
“But hoping,” he said, “is how the impossible can be possible after all”
Does this mean I think all her choices are sensible? Obviously no. Cath makes a lot of stupid decisions, but I don’t think attempting to delay a marriage she didn’t want whilst simultaneously trying to not to end up living under a bridge was one of them. In particular, a rather fatal choice that she makes at the end I really wasn’t a fan of, but it was obviously one that had to be made to fit the Queen of Hearts origin story. Which leads me on to another question:
Did I like Catherine Pinkerton? I sympathised with her, I understood her infatuation with Jest – because that’s what it was and I rather think it was well written at that. We’ve all been infatuated with people that we barely know (just me? I remember being about 12 and convinced I was going to marry a good looking girl I saw in Tesco like twice…) and Cath DID barely know Jest. I’ll come back to him in a minute. The girl did have some personality though and I actually thought it was rather clever; I could see Cath becoming more and more like her volatile mother, calm and even-tempered and then, seconds later, having an angry temper-tantrum. Even before the tipping point, Cath was clearly mentally on the decline. So yes, I suppose I did rather enjoy her character.
“It is a dangerous thing to unbelieve something only because it frightens you.”
Jest. Mysterious court jester, Jest with a Raven and magical tricks, riddles, and witty remarks up his sleeve. Frankly, I thought he was a bit of a walking cliche with not a whole lot behind the veneer. Yes, he’s charming and witty and delightful but the reader, like Cath, actually knows very little about him – what’s his real name? Favourite food? Childhood? Family? Does he like sport? Eh, I don’t know. He’s mysterious to the point of disappearing. Make no mistake, he’s an enjoyable and charming character but there’s not a whole lot distinctive about him. However, I did rather like the romance until the word “love” started getting bandied about and it became some sort of earth-shattering, soul-destroying force of nature rather than the rather realistic (at least it reminded me in parts of my younger self) thought consuming and fantasy inventing crush that it had been.
“It begins, why is a raven like a writing desk?” She lifted her chin. “Have you gone mad, Hatta? I can’t seem to tell.”
“They are both so full of poetry, you see. Darkness and whimsy, nightmares and song.”
The rest of the cast has a couple of standouts: there’s Mary Ann, maid and would-be bakery business partner, and Hatta, slowing growing madder and madder (there’s a little bit of information about him and Jest revealed right at the end and I’m so cross that Meyer didn’t use more. Perfect heartbreaking material right there and she drops it into two bloody lines). There’s a cute little romance side-plot which made me smile. The Jabberwocky returns as the evil villain with a pretty predictable twist which I guessed about half way through.
Heartless earns a strong 4 star rating from me for being compelling and whimsical. Very much recommend if you like Alice in Wonderland or romance stories.