I recently recommended Marissa Meyer’s new book, Heartless, to one of my students, who became as riveted to it as I had been. I asked her what she thought of it as she was reading it, and she called it a “roller-coaster.” Indeed. (Mild spoilers ahead.)
Heartless is the origin story of the Queen of Hearts. It’s the story of Catherine in the land of Hearts, and her official courtship with the King of Hearts, as well as her love story with Jest, the dark and dashing court joker. This being Wonderland, there are twists and turns aplenty, and delightful references to the source material from Lewis Carroll. There is so much right about Heartless, from its love story to its whimsical images to the feeling that the entire novel is one breathless night out. Ultimately, though, it remains the story of the creation of a villainess, which sooner or later involves trauma.
Watching Catherine’s transformation into the Queen of Hearts is a bit like watching one of Jest’s magic tricks: the clues are all there. You already know the ending, but you don’t see how the trick is done, because you’re too caught up in the flourishes. You’re not really looking. Or at least, I certainly wasn’t. I was far too caught up in walking through the labyrinth of their story to see the shape of the entire thing, and I must insist that this is not the fault of the story. Arguably, it’s one of its strongest traits. It managed to jump an ending on me that I didn’t anticipate, but which was not undeserved.
It strikes me after reading Heartless how difficult it is to offer an opinion of a book without its ending, when that is what decides our satisfaction with our reading experience. Was it, to put it simply, worth it? If I’m honest, every time I open a book, I more or less expect a happy ending. Perhaps that’s why the end of Heartless broke my own heart a little. It was good storytelling, but it left me with the sense that there was no way out; for Catherine and Jest, the choices they make seem to be no match for forces like Fate and Chance. And yes, I know, life is rather like that; the good suffer just as much as the bad. In real life there is no ending, just a rolling series of unfair and unrelated events.
I enjoyed Heartless, and would still recommend it on the grounds that it makes much of its material. I will add, though, that if you like your heroes and princesses to be more-or-less intact by the end of the novel, I would go for Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles instead, starting with Cinder. Less of a roller-coaster, but still a great ride.
Jane Perrella. Teacher, writer. Expert knitter. Enthusiast of medieval swordplay, tea, Shakespeare, and Batman.