Marisa Meyer is known for her Young Adult fairy tale retellings. Her first novel was the NaNoWriMo phenomenon Cinder, the story of a cyborg sort-of Cinderella and the start of the Lunar Chronicles sequence, which includes new versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White. Meyer’s work, however, is very loosely based on the fairy tales—she develops new worlds, brings in new characters and does not use the classic familiar plot lines. With Heartless, her first stand alone novel, Meyer takes us back to when the violent, furious Queen of Hearts was a warm, sweet young girl who wanted something more—albeit smaller, simpler and full of sugar and butter—than what was on offer for her.
Catherine is just another young well to do girl with hopes and dreams. Society demands that her hopes and dreams be specifically about getting married to the wealthiest man she can, but she has other ideas. Even though it seems that the most eligible bachelor in the kingdom is rather interested in her, Catherine would rather be baking professionally. She and her best friend and lady’s maid have grand plans of running a bakery in town, though they have yet to work out just how they will manage this financially and remain socially acceptable—this is the Kingdom of Hearts, where societal norms are Victorian, where magic is part of the every day, where Catherine’s most vivid dreams lead to great trees of fruits and roses growing in her room, and where the King would very much like her to be the Queen of Hearts, and give up this silly nonsense of selling cakes for ever.
Catherine, ever the dutiful daughter and polite young lady of the court, attempts to hold true to her dreams, baking as best she can and working up the courage to ask her parents for her dowry money to buy a shop. Her plans go awry very fast though, when one day at a palace ball when she’s trying desperately to avoid a royal proposal, she meets the mysterious new Jester the King has hired.
Catherine then has to contend with a whole new set of problems. Her growing feelings for Jest, her confusion at what he’s really doing in Hearts or where he’s come from, her inability to dissuade the silly, foolish King or reject his offer of marriage and break his and her parents’ hearts, her still desperate desire to leave it all behind and become a baker and her growing frustration as curiouser and curiouser things start to take place around her. ‘It is a dangerous thing to unbelieve something only because it frightens you’, says the Cheshire Cat to Catherine, who now must wrangle far more than she had had thought to, including a Jabberwocky at large and a mythic Vorpal sword that will only show itself for a Queen. But as with many fairy tales where we already know the end, there is a prophecy foretold, and altering one’s own fate isn’t something even the girl who may be Queen can do, even if she is brave and impulsive as Catherine.
Heartless takes a familiar world and builds upon it, liberally sprinkling all things Alice through the story, quite charmingly. From ‘I’ve sometimes come to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast’, to ‘perhaps we know each other in the future and you’re only remembering backward’, there are many phrases and bits of dialogue that are either obliquely, or directly, referencing Carroll’s predilection for literary nonsense. There are other literary references too, most obviously Poe’s Raven, who takes the form of the Jester’s constant companion (to play a larger role later in the story), and often spouts the refrain ‘Nevermore’. It’s fun and whimsical and quite easy to willingly suspend disbelief for. But there are also some strange dark elements in Heartless, some that may leave readers with a stronger bent for the dark thirsting for more. A version of the Fates appear as three sisters hiding in a well who pronounce prophecies for each of the main characters; the Hatter appears as a bitter but fiercely intelligent man waiting to go mad; Peter Pumpkin Eater and his sickly wife are crucial to Catherine’s fate, though their occasional (but creepy) forays into the story are a slow burn suspense.
Catherine’s story isn’t a familiar one, though of course we know where her life is headed, even before she hears the prophecy that tells her what the Fates see. We already know the adult version of the Queen of Hearts. She’s the Big Bad of Wonderland, she’s the perennial villain, she wants off with poor innocent Alice’s head—and everyone else’s too. She is, as Carroll himself said, ‘a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion—a blind and aimless Fury.’
Disney’s Queen of Hearts, often the image many recall first when the character is mentioned, is ridiculous. She isn’t taken very seriously, her frequent and illogical death sentences are pretty much never carried out—in fact, neither were Carroll’s Queen’s. In Heartless, Meyer stops before the Queen becomes ridiculous. Here, she’s still full of a very clear eyed and specific fury, a cold calculated need for vengeance. It isn’t hard to imagine how she will end up, when she must give up the life she had imagined as a valid alternate—full of a cold, heartless hatred that clouds all judgement. The young girl who felt so much, who felt strongly enough that ‘…it felt as though her heart had outgrown her body. It was the size of her house now. The size of the entire kingdom’, ends up as the heartless villain we all know.
Meyer references Carroll’s own description of the Queen of hearts at the very start of Heartless. She reminds us that the young girl we are about to meet and know is, ultimately, the cruel Queen we’ve known since childhood, the one who was insane, lost in her fury and absurd in her constant shrill demands for death. That these demands go unheard, that young Catherine who wanted so much more is the Queen who ends up a joke, is the saddest part of Meyer’s story.
Heartless is available from Feiwel & Friends.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.