I hate it when I have to begin a review by saying how much I respect the author—but… Unfortunately, today I have to say that I hugely respect Marissa Meyer and absolutely loved her Lunar Chronicles—but I found Heartless to be sadly disappointing. It’s true that Lunar Chronicles set the bar very high and that may have been a factor, but I found Heartless frankly baffling on a couple of levels.
Heartless brings us to weird and whimsical Wonderland, where Catherine just wants to open a bakery—even though her mother, minor nobility, is determined that she will marry the kind but foolish King of Hearts who has come courting. When Catherine meets the mysterious new court joker, Jest, she swiftly falls for him, even though there seems to be no way they can be together. Also, there’s a Jabberwock turning up here and there attacking—which I can’t quite figure out how to put smoothly into my plot description, because it doesn’t fit all that smoothly in the story either.
For three-quarters or more of this book, I was hopeful. Catherine is a reasonably good heroine. I don’t love her the way I loved Scarlet, Cress or Winter, but I didn’t love Cinder either and she was still an engaging heroine. Catherine had potential, and she did make mouth-watering-sounding pastries. I didn’t love Jest the way I loved Wolf, Thorne (!) or Jacin, but I also didn’t love Kai and he was still fine (and grew on me over the series, for what that’s worth).
And I liked the idea of a heroine who didn’t want to marry a king, she just wanted to run a bakery, and was trying to figure out practical concerns like paying the rent. That’s SO right up my retelling-alley.
But. For those three-quarters of the book (more or less), there was also a bit of a sense that the story was spinning its wheels. Catherine has clear goals, but she keeps hitting walls. And the Jabberwock plot thread, while an interesting mystery that was actually quite well done, felt oddly disconnected from everything else.
Mostly, I kept reading along wondering how Meyer was going to manage the ending. I had heard this described as the origin story of the Queen of Hearts, and I didn’t quite see how we were going to get from here to there in a way that would be satisfying. Well, surprise. It wasn’t.
And from here THERE BE SPOILERS so you have been warned!! But I really can’t discuss this book without discussing the ending.
You see, Catherine and Jest have a chance to escape Wonderland together (to pursue what sounds like a far more interesting plotline and great series opportunity, by the way). In the process they encounter three super creepy fates who tell them that if they pass through a door, Jest will be killed and Catherine will wind up queen. Well, they ignore the warning (for a completely altruistic and impossible-to-argue-with reason!) and…fate steps in. Jest dies, Catherine’s heart breaks, she marries the king as a means towards revenge, and the final line is “Off with his head.”
Leaving me with sort of a “wait, what?” reaction.
I don’t hate sad endings. I like happy endings as a rule, but two of my five favorite books have bittersweet endings. The Phantom has to die at the end of Susan Kay’s novel. David has to grow up and leave the kindly narrator at the end of The Little White Bird (and I actually resent the hopeful spin Barrie tries to shoehorn in). Heartless does not have the kind of natural inevitability or the appropriate tone for a sad ending. It’s a light whimsical fantasy that suddenly falls off a depressing cliff.
I like Shakespearean tragedies too. Othello has his fatal flaw and jealousy will ultimately undo him. Catherine has no fatal flaw that causes her downfall. She stumbles into a horrible fate trying to help her friend. Yes, she defied the warning—but there was no strand in her character that I could see that made her final fate inevitable and appropriate.
You know what ultimately gets me here? This book centers entirely around the question, can dreams, determination and true love enable you to escape a terrible fate? And then the answer it gives is no.
What is that??? I know bad things happen. I know not everyone winds up with a happy life. But fate marks some people out for bad ends and they can’t do anything to stop it? That’s the message?
The thing is, books teach us about the world. Even ones in as weird and wild a world as Wonderland, seemingly so removed from the world you and I live in. In this world here, we don’t have creepy little girls to tell us our fates. No Oracles of Delphi. We have trends, statistics and examples. We have kids who grow up in neighborhoods where everyone else got into a gang so that seems to be their fate. Or whose father is in prison so they can’t avoid ending up the same way. Or who go to a poor school so they can’t possibly get into a good college. Or who have dyslexia, or Aspergers, or bipolar, or something else saying they’ll never be successful or achieve their dreams.
That’s the kind of Fate and predictions people in our world have to face. And if that’s the Fate people say you can’t overcome? Fight like Hell. Because I believe, in my soul, that people can change the statistics, overcome the probabilities and defeat the obstacles. True, not everyone does. But if we tell people they can’t, then no one will.
Now, more than ever, I don’t need a story telling me that a good, committed person who tries hard can’t escape a dire fate. I need stories about people who band together, make use of their talents (even if they’re not what society expects them to be good at), start from nothing and ultimately change the world.
Guess I’d better reread The Lunar Chronicles.
Author’s Site: http://www.marissameyer.com/
Buy it here: Heartless