Whimsical and tragic, an inspired origin story for the Queen of Hearts.
(Full disclosure: I received an electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)
She would be queen, and queens … queens did not open bakeries with their best friends. Queens did not gossip with half-invisible cats. Queens did not have dreams of yellow-eyed boys and wake up with lemon trees over their beds.
The Fox folded her hands and recited,
One to be a murderer, the other to be martyred,
One to be a monarch, the other to go mad.
Was he mad already? She couldn’t help inspecting him, newly speculative and curious. He didn’t seem mad. No more mad than anyone else she knew. No more mad than she was herself. They were all a little mad, if one was to be forthright.
Lady Catherine Pinkerton is in love … with baked goods.
The kitchen is her sanctuary: a refuge from a hyper-critical, socially ambitious mother; a meek father; and all the expectations that come with her social status – learning embroidery, attending balls, hanging out with the haughty best friend she can hardly stand. There’s nothing she enjoys more than dusting powdered sugar on a recently cooled lemon tart, or kneading bread dough until she’s ready to drop. She loves eating sweets, and sharing them with others: what quicker way to a stranger’s heart than through her stomach?
Cath dreams of opening a bakery with her best friend/family servant (one of several), Mary Anne. Mr. Caterpillar the cobbler is set to retire, leaving his storefront vacant, and its busy location would make the perfect home for SWEETS AND TARTS: THE MOST WONDROUS BAKERY IN ALL OF HEARTS.
Though her dream is almost adorable in its simplicity, the obstacles that stand in Cath’s way are anything but. As the only daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove, Cath is its sole heir. Baking is considered unladylike – at least for ladies belonging to the royal class – and besides, she’s expected to marry and have children. In fact, her scheming mother has one particularly illustrious suitor in mind: the King of Hearts. He’s a nice enough guy, but fifteen years Cath’s senior, rather silly and daft – and baby-crazy, to boot.
The arrival of the King’s new Joker – on the night he’s set to propose to Cath, nonetheless – only complicates matters further. A mysterious man who makes the impossible possible, with eyes the “color of sunflowers and butterscotch and lemons hanging heavy on their boughs” and dark, curly hair, Jest is the man of Cath’s dreams. Literally: she was chasing him the night her dreams grew a lemon tree over her bed. The very same tree that bore the lemons she used to make the tarts she baked for her King/future husband. (Maybe.) Oh, what a fantastic mess!
And then there’s the Jabberwock that seemingly crawled right out of myth and rumor to wreak havoc on the Kingdom of Hearts. The spineless King won’t do anything to stop the creature, which only makes Cath dislike him more. Can she slay the dragon, deny the King, run away with the boy, have her cake and eat it too – all with her reputation and head (or is that heart?) intact?
I’ll be honest: I was a little nervous to read Heartless. Marissa Meyer made a total fangirl out of me with The Lunar Chronicles series, and this should have been a no-brainer. But I’m partial to scifi over fantasy, and my knowledge of Alice in Wonderland is mostly limited to the animated 1951 film by Disney, which I enjoyed as a child. I wasn’t sure I knew/remembered enough about the books to fully appreciate an origin story for the Queen of Hearts.
And perhaps this is true, but I loved it just the same. Meyer’s writing is brimming with humor and whimsy, but with a hint of pathos and tragedy that takes quite the turn near the story’s end. You can almost imagine her channeling the spirit of Lewis Carroll; the setting, dialogue, and magic of the source material are all present and accounted for. She even borrows from a second author: the raven from Edgar Allen Poe’s “Nevermore.” It’s hard to choose just a few favorite elements; there are so many wonderful and unexpected touches. But I have a soft spot for the Raven, who speaks in rhyme – and wields an axe in his human(ish) form.
Other things I loved, in no particular order:
– Lady Catherine, who is sweet and kind and ambitious – yet also a little too eager to please her parents. She’s flawed and complicated and surprisingly relatable, considering the outlandish villain she’s fated to become.
– Jest, who’s hecka swoon-worthy. His magical jester’s hat and sidekick, Raven, are just the beginning: he’s dreamy and mysterious, clever like whoah, and nimble like an acrobat. Plus he can vanish in swirl of feathers, or tunnel through the earth. Talk about a man of many talents.
– Cath + Jest. The two have a textbook’s worth of chemistry, and you can’t help but root for their romance – even when we learn that Jest has An Agenda, and despite the fact that it’s doomed from the start.
– ALL THE FOOD TALK. From lemon tarts to rose macarons, freshly baked bread to treacle-bourbon-pecan pie, Heartless will have you salivating through the tears/despite your horror.
– I especially love that Catherine is a gal who enjoys food in every way – baking, feasting, inventing, sharing – even while Proper Society (as represented by her mother) admonishes her for her passions. The Marchioness constantly puts Catherine down: calling her an elephant or walrus, forcing her to fit into a gown several sizes too small for her, even restricting her food intake. Yet Jest rebukes this narrow image of femininity time and again. Likewise, baking is reaffirmed as Cath’s chief talent when she’s forced to perform at Hatta’s tea party – and it’s arguably the reason the King is drawn to her so. Three cheers for the lady’s appetites, okay?!
– Hatta’s Marvelous Millinery Fine Hats and Headdresses for Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen. (“No longer does a hat complete an outfit—now it completes you.”) I think I’d quite fancy a macaron hat myself.
– Peter Peter pumpkin eater! ‘Nuff said, because spoilers.
– The Roxanne-esque courtship of Cath by the King (with a little help from Jest).
– Household objects come to life (the hotheaded candle, the sleepy cuckoo clock); animals that are very weird literal interpretations of their names (construction-minded carpenter ants; racing seahorses); all the punny stuff (Sturgeons who are surgeons).
– The Sisters, who are creepy as all get out and could use a story of their own. Also I really want to know what they did with that heart.
– Lion. Poor, brave lion! (Yes, I cried a little. Okay a lot.)
– A woman dragonslayer, the only one worthy of the Vorpal Sword.
– The allusion to multiverses.
– The scenes when Cath loses it with Margaret and her parents at the end. Honestly? I cheered. It was a long time coming and thus deeply satisfying, even if it marked Cath’s descent into evil.
In summary, this is one weird and wonderful book. While reading, I was just overcome with the feeling that Meyer must have had a darn fun time writing it. It’s definitely a fun read, offset by the odd moments of worry and doom and inevitability. Meyer does a masterful job of humanizing a rather flamboyantly cruel villain, and imagining how she might have come to be this way.
Heartless is a must read for Alice in Wonderland fans, Marissa Meyer fangirls, and anyone who enjoys the genre more broadly. All the hearts.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: It’s strongly implied that Hatta was in love with Jest:
“If you think you had a monopoly on loving him, then you should be the King’s new fool, not his wife.”
She stared at him. Her thoughts somersaulted, warred with each other—first, a mess of confusion. Then understanding.
She straightened. “Did he know?”
“Does it matter?”
Animal-friendly elements: n/a