Heartless by Marissa Meyer is a prequel story set in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Wonderland’. We so wanted to love this book, and the premise is intriguing – how did The Queen of Hearts become the ‘villain’ we see in Carroll’s books?
Let’s be clear – it is absolutely not the fault of Lady Catherine ‘Cath’ Pinkerton that she grows up to become the evil Queen of Hearts. Cath is “not like other girls”. All she wants to do is open a bakery with her BFF/servant Mary-Ann. It is the result of a series of uncontrollable circumstances which make her turn out the way she does. The lack of agency that Cath has over her own life is frightening – possibly the only true reflection of the Victorian-ish era Meyer appears to think she’s pastiching.
Virtually every character is two-dimensional and everyone is boringly hetronormative. There are no shades of grey here. All of the characters other than Cath are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Talking of Shades of Grey, Jest is clearly telegraphed as ‘the love interest’ and he’s in Hearts to manipulate and exploit Cath, who still loves him despite his deceit and duplicity. This is an appalling example to send to the readers of this book who are probably going to be younger than Meyer’s usual YA audience. Body-shaming is rife, from Cath’s mother who insists on squeezing her daughter into a too-tight corset, to Cath herself, narratively bitching about her ‘friend’ Margaret who ‘has the great hardship of bearing unbearably unattractive’, and who is, of course, also described as ‘clever’. Intriguing and potentially interesting characters and scenes are never developed, and real opportunities for good storytelling are missed.
In Carroll’s books anything could happen next – here the plot is ploddingly obvious. Little happens for the first two hundred pages other than Cath’s lack of interest in the King of Hearts’ courtship of her being relentlessly restated. It is a mercifully quick read – the lack of emotional depth meaning there’s little to challenge the reader. By the time we get to page four hundred Cath still isn’t evil, and so Meyer ramps up the action and everything suddenly escalates. Now there are corpses littering the ground, and Cath has a mighty streak of grief-stricken vengeance to exploit. And there it just… stops.
It’s a challenge - writing the backstory of a character we all think we know. Meyer here appears to have used the Disney film as inspiration, an unfortunate choice as that characterisation combined three female roles from Carroll’s original books. By seemingly failing to have a grasp on her source material, Meyer has produced a story which promises much but delivers little.
HEARTLESS / AUTHOR: MARISSA MEYER / PUBLISHER: MACMILLAN CHILDREN’S BOOKS / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW