1.5 out of 4 stars
This one hurt. I adored Marissa Meyer’s “The Lunar Chronicles” – I’d give it every book 5 stars – so my expectations here were really high. Heartless, sadly, falls far short.
Heartless is the story of Lady Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of a Marquess and the best baker in the kingdom of Hearts. As with every heroine-of-noble-blood ever written, Cath dreams not of inheriting her parents’ title and estate, nor of gallivanting about the court. She’s a real girl – and this time, she wants to open a bakery. Alas, the King of Hearts himself has eyes for Catherine, and everyone assumes she will accept his proposal. Right on cue, in walks a man with no rank and all the charm: the rakish, witty court joker named Jest. Guess who Cath falls for?
Yet the Looking Glass has two sides. Opposite Hearts is the world of Chess, caught in endless war between the Red and White Queens. Chess’ problems are sneaking, creeping, and sometimes swanning, their way into Hearts. The King and citizens are willfully oblivious, but even they notice when the the Jabberwock, a dragon-y thing without the fire breath, attacks. Cath, Jest, their mysterious friend Hatta (who is not yet mad), a maid named Mary Ann, and a raven called Raven must take it upon themselves to save the kingdom from this beast and Cath from a loveless marriage.
For a universe so fantastic, Heartless is dull. Almost nothing happens until the first Jabberwock attack, which takes pages (or hours, I was on audiobook). What does happen is pretty predictable: Cath loves Jest! The King is an idiot! Strict parents! Corset-related fainting! The essential nonsense of the Looking Glass world has no magic in this story, it’s just tossed in to lay as lumps on the ground. There are creative elements, but they’re invisible around a story that could not make me care.
I will say that Jest is quite a good character. He’s layered and conflicted. I felt the connection between him and Cath, and I rooted for them – mostly so we could all get the h*ck out of her tedious backstory and into something interesting. Cath herself is not so bad, she’s just given little to work with. Through the Looking Glass is a kids book, so perhaps it’s the source material, but pumpkins do not make good plot points.
Or maybe I’m just tired of it. Through the Looking Glass is among the most often-twisted classic stories. Buzzfeed cited 17 TV & movie versions, before the most recent Johnny Depp sequel. With the exception of the Disney cartoon and the Care Bears special (obviously), they all seem pretty dreadful. Goodreads has at least 70 re-imagined or spin-off books. The top-rated is Splintered, by A.G. Howard. Has anyone read it?
About the strict parenting I mentioned: If I have to read one more story about a young woman of standing whose parents’ only goal is to see her married, I may scream. I know it’s historically relevant. I understand it demonstrates an inherent struggle against society and sexism, and appears to be the only way that anyone can think of for a young woman to prove herself. The mother is always a shrieking harpy. The father is always slightly softer, but completely useless in standing up to his wife – I assume he’s the only person more sick of her caterwauling than the reader. Cath’s mother, the Marchioness, is so overdone in Heartless that I had to stop the audiobook several times just to get away from her insanely tiresome narrative.
I also had no idea the correct, British pronunciation of macaroon was “macaron,” as in “RON Weasley,” said and spelled with one “o.” It’s jarring, both because the narrator here is American but the characters are British, and because “macaron” has never been said so many times in a book that’s not actually about macarons. Or even one that is. Audiobooks get me again.
All this aside, I will always read whatever Marissa Meyer writes. I envy her rampantly: four of her five “Lunar Chronicles” books were National Novel Writing Month projects. She finished a first draft of each one in a month. Heartless was also a NaNoWriMo project. They should make Marissa their mascot, she’s so prolific. If you’ve tried NaNoWriMo, you know how superhuman it is to finish (or not finish) a first draft in a month. Now do that five times. I’ll be here, crying onto my blank pages. (Read her Q&A at MarissaMeyer.com.)
Perhaps her true strength lies in stunning sci-fi, creating fresh worlds and characters like in Cinder, and not re-writing someone else’s fantasy. But while Heartless was a serious miss in my eyes, I continue to expect big things. Or small things. Whichever that bottle marked “Drink Me” will do.