Having so thoroughly enjoyed Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, her latest novel, Heartless was one of the first I purchased with the gift cards I received back at Christmas. A stand-alone novel rather than the start of a new series, Heartless delves into the life of the young woman who becomes the Queen of Hearts and terrifies Alice on her journey through Wonderland. Once again, Meyer demonstrates her skill at paying homage to the source material while expanding and incorporating additional elements, including characters from nursery rhymes and poems.
Cath is the daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove in the kingdom of Hearts but what she wants above everything else is to open a bakery with her best friend, lady’s maid Mary Ann. Though Cath has already caught the king’s attention with her tasty treats, someone else has caught her eye—the new court joker, Jest. As a Jabberwock begins terrorizing the kingdom, Cath learns that there is more to Jest and his presence in Hearts than she’d originally thought and her dreams will clash with both reality and fate.
Meyer manages to incorporate many of the fanciful characters from the original Wonderland stories including the Cheshire cat, the March hare, and the Mad Hatter—though he hasn’t gone mad yet. From outside the realm of Wonderland she pulls Peter Peter (the pumpkin eater) and his wife as well as a well-known Raven. Wonderland is one of those fictional worlds nearly impossible to recreate because there is such a fine line between its whimsy and going too far into the ridiculous; Meyer manages beautifully. While Cath serves as a proxy for the reader in many awkward and unusual interactions, she is quite accustomed to plenty of the oddities that make readers check twice.
The first quarter or third of the book can feel a bit tedious at times as the relationship between Cath and Jest is developed and the same notes about the king’s intentions toward Cath are hit over and over. The narrative is not in Cath’s first person perspective—for which I am forever grateful—but every once in a while it meant that I assumed she had made the same connections I’d made between certain events or characters, only to have her realize those connections later. Part of it appears to be an understandably willful denial of reality in order to cling to the dreams that sustain her optimism.
Actually, one of my favorite things about the novel is the way Meyer uses dreams and how Cath’s manifest throughout. While this isn’t the first ‘origin story’ Meyer has written for a classic villainess, Cath is a more immediate and relatable protagonist than Levana was in Fairest (at the time Fairest was released, the character was already well established in the Lunar Chronicles universe so perhaps it’s easier to see the twisted way she thinks). Cath is a people-pleaser, desperate to believe in her dreams for herself and her right to decide her own future as she continually bumps against the people in her life and what they want for her. Knowing that she will become the familiar Queen of Hearts adds to the emotional tension behind Cath’s struggles, especially in the final acts of the novel.