Who’s ready for some kvetching?
Plot-wise, all you really need to know is that Heartless is the origin story of the Queen of Hearts, of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. So although you know how it’s going to end, here is a general SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this review, because I don’t want to dance around the details of what bugged me.
The very biggest problem is that the heroine, Catherine Pinkteron, is an absolute mess of a character. To a certain extent, it’s very understandable why she is the way she is: she’s the daughter of nobles and has expectations on her both as a young woman and as a member of the peerage in the land of Hearts. She has her own dreams — she wants to open a bakery, to be precise — but she knows the idea won’t be well-received by her parents, who want nothing more than for her to marry the King of Hearts. So, much of the book has to do with Catherine’s anxiety over telling her parents what she really wants, even after her mother has successfully maneuvered her into a courtship with the King.
Unfortunately, just because her behavior is understandable doesn’t make it compelling reading — at least not the way it’s written. There’s a drowsy repetition to the way it plays out, which seems like innumerable cycles where Catherine must spend time with the King, trying to appear politely aloof and disinterested so as not to encourage him, then goes home and frets over telling her parents about the bakery, and ends up whining to her handmaiden, Mary Ann, when she is unable to. Her lack of conviction becomes pernicious when it comes to her would-be business partner Mary Ann, and also to her love interest, because she makes promises to the both of them regarding her availability, both professionally and emotionally, that she can’t follow through on.
So, about that love interest. He’s, of course, a mysterious foreign boy with golden eyes. Also obviously, he is immediately taken with Catherine, keeping true to the time-honored YA tradition of depicting a heroine whom everyone loves, either for no reason that’s ever explained, or because we’re told all these admirable characteristics that she apparently has, although rarely displays. When Catherine and this boy Jest first meet, what we know about her is that she is reasonably nice, is an excellent baker, and that she had been forced into an ostentatious red dress by her fat-shaming mother, to wear to a ball where everyone else is wearing black and/or white. She later displays some obligatory YA Heroine Sass™, and that is about the extent of her personality. A few quippy comebacks, obeys her mother, and good in the kitchen. Pardon me if I’m not overwhelmed.
Likewise, Jest bursts onto the scene with some neat magic tricks that he performs at the ball where he and Catherine meet, and he gazes intensely at her. So he’s not really a fully-formed, three-dimensional character either; the most notable thing about Jest is what he represents for Catherine: an escape from the life that is expected of her. Jest is the King’s court Joker, so he would be a scandalous match, and he also appears to be the only actual young man in the kingdom, which is otherwise populated with anthropomorphic animals. (There is Jack, the knave of hearts, and he might be human — I don’t recall — but his only purpose in the book is to be antagonistic to Catherine in the exact fashion a surly kindergartner would be — “You’re ugly and I don’t like you!” — and so he doesn’t count.)
So anyway, Catherine and Jest are in love, but it’s forbidden. I mentioned earlier that Catherine is kind of awful to Jest, and that’s because she promises him that she will not actually accept the King, if and when he ever proposes, but in the meantime she lacks the backbone to stand up to her parents when they push the two of them together, so Jest is forced to be present on several occasions to simply watch while Catherine and the King carry on the farce of their courtship. And I don’t blame Jest for being skeptical, because when has he ever had the occasion to see Catherine stand up to anyone? She’s not exactly assertive even when the stakes are low, so it’s not like she inspires a lot of confidence that she’ll grow some ovaries when it comes to something as monumental as her future.
The King, by the way, is weirdly parenthetical to this story that seems to revolve so much around him and Catherine. On the page, he’s childlike and foolish and incapable of following conversations that are happening around him and even that involve him. I’m not sure how old he’s meant to be, but he’s written very much like a sweet old man who isn’t all there, which is potentially weird and offensive since I think he is not actually THAT old. Surely the point of him is that he is supposed to be a terrible match for Catherine, but really you just end up feeling badly for him, because Catherine’s indecision affects him too; she strings him along to keep up appearances with her parents, pretending ignorance to the fact that he actually does like her, even if he’s not the kind of suave, dreamy admirer that YA heroines duly deserve.
All of this weird character flakiness culminates in the final act, where — I WARNED YOU EARLIER ABOUT SPOILERS! — Catherine and Jest run away, and when things go awry, she is directly responsible for Jest getting killed, thereby triggering the emotional collapse that results in her becoming the evil Queen. The way this transpires feels so hastily assembled. The whole conclusion plays out inside of the last fifty pages (or at least it feels that way.) It’s basically like, Catherine makes an incredibly stupid decision that she KNEW would have consequences, but tried to hand-wave them away, and then when everything happened exactly like she knew they would, she blamed literally everyone else who was standing in the vicinity and transforms into a rage-beast. (Actually, it’s kind of the one consistent thing about her character: her inability to accept her role as an active player in her own life and her insistence that if it weren’t for everyone else, things would be perfect.) But rather than actually spend time on the first real emotion in the whole book — because instalove doesn’t count — you just get Catherine muttering how she has become cold revenge and has no need of her heart any longer. It’s an armchair psychologist’s version of experiencing trauma, and it’s especially difficult to swallow considering that being affected by this supreme angst is predicated on me, as a reader, believing that these two paper dolls had enough of a depth of feeling for each other that losing the other would result in such sorrow.
And omg, then there are all the LITTLE THINGS. The ham-fisted inclusion of fairy-tale character Peter Peter (pumpkin eater) was a total red herring that was coerced into becoming a major plot point because Meyer didn’t know how to kill her darlings. The cutesy sidekick Raven who speaks in rhyme and randomly says “Nevermore,” because why reference Poe in a meaningful way when you can just stick in a literal goddamn raven who quotes the poem? Just, in general, the worldbuilding did not service the story at all; it felt more like forced whimsy, like Meyer periodically remembered this was a Wonderland retelling so she threw in a couple of wacky characters to remind you that you were in Hearts and not Regency England.
SO TL;DR basically this is a book where a pampered girl yearns to do something with her life, does not manage to do it and in the process kills the only person she loves, and then becomes a despot out of spite. idk, maybe I’m supposed to care but tbh this
is all the enthusiasm I can muster.