Marissa Meyer’s “Heartless” Is Fun, But It Ultimately Misses the Mark.

For Marissa Meyer’s Queen of Hearts origin story, Wicked, the Gregory Maguire novel-turned wildly popular musical, is an obvious influence. What if the Queen of Hearts was once a teenage girl who wanted nothing to do with the crown, Meyer’s tale asks, with the catchy edge of an “I want” song looming around the corner. Catherine, a Marquess’ daughter looking down the barrel of an unwelcome marriage proposal, wants a bakery. And a love interest her parents most definitely wouldn’t approve of. And we’re off!

Meyer, ever the fairy tale enthusiast (she’s best known for her sci-fi Cinderella retelling, Cinder), has a ball reworking the absurdity in the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into a framework more befitting a modern fantasy novel. She keeps the oddities and lets them run wild, but tempers them with a foundation of quest-friendly magical logic underneath. Wonderland still has much to offer those who take it just seriously enough: though Meyer’s take isn’t quite as morbid as the one in the 2010 Tim Burton film (which I seem to be citing often these days), it takes after it in the delicate balance of strangeness and tragedy. By knowing exactly when to play things straight, Heartless can frolic with the tea partiers one moment and reel from a wrenching loss the next––and rarely find itself missing the mark in tone.

Its greatest virtue is in falling back on sincerity, a lesson well-learned in the way Cinder and its sequels burst with wide-eyed joy, and put to good use here. Whatever the consequences (the book is a bit unkind to a few side characters, for instance), Heartless follows its heroine with tireless conviction, grieving when Catherine grieves and judging where she judges, even if it’s overblown; even if the reader can see right through it.

Some care might have been taken, though, in the way Meyer depicts the King of Hearts, Catherine’s unwanted suitor. He’s extremely short in stature in almost all his appearances in modern retellings, shown as squat and a little over half Catherine’s size in Heartless. Going this route isn’t a mistake in itself, but the book wades into messy territory in emphasizing this when it wants to convince us how unattractive he is. In the same way making Queen Levana’s disfigurement a factor in her villainy is a mistake in Cinder, using the King of Hearts’ stature like this is a mistake here. If Meyer planned to go this route in crafting him, she would’ve done well to avoid showing Catherine being openly repulsed at something a reader could reasonably recognize as a real-life disability.

As far as suitors go, Meyer makes a solid but not illuminating mark with the King’s foil, Jest, a court joker who’s more than meets the eye. When he’s not angst-ing over the impossibility of sharing a life with Catherine, he’s interesting enough to watch to keep the pages turning, but underneath, there’s a real dearth of substance. The love story in Heartless, in a searingly tragic turn of events, in other words, hits the same walls that Wicked‘s does––you know: the one between Elphaba and what’s-his-name.

There are bigger pitfalls looming in the offing, though, as Heartless dwindles to its last line. For one thing, Catherine is as different from the Queen of Hearts as they come, but all this serves to do is make the eventual transformation more jarring. Heartless opens on a surprising Point A, introducing us to the young Queen of Hearts as a teenage girl with no royal ambitions, a love of baking, and only the slightest hint of her future tendencies, but from that vantage point, the tragedy about to befall her has no central weakness as a sticking point.

In lieu of this, Meyer’s forced to dish up a series of heartbreaks that, in tandem, are supposed to amount to that fateful day-to-night switch, but ultimately feel more incidental than truly ordained. They don’t reflect on Catherine: they reflect on the her rigid station in Wonderland. Something like this can be a moving tragedy in its own right––but it doesn’t produce the conclusion Meyer is aiming for. Approaching Heartless as a reader, I wanted to watch the making of a villain, but all I got was a hero who breaks spontaneously after an incident of misfortune.

There’s one moment, in the middle of Act III, that, with some tweaks, might have better sealed the deal than most of what the actual conclusion has to offer, but you can almost see the author’s hand shrinking back before it unfolds. The rage Catherine feels in that moment as her parents back her into the proverbial corner is fresher and more in character than the rage that tears through her in the denouement: the only thing stopping this from being the tipping point is hesitation on Meyer’s part.

Its blistering resonance is instead cut short in favor of the real conclusion, maybe because Meyer worried that it was too juvenile or trivial to be truly convincing as the last straw. What replaces it, however, is a convoluted destiny plot that eats up the last 80 pages, breaching an ‘inevitability of fate’ motif that was conspicuously absent from the first 300, and pushing the excessive pulp of a gruesome tragedy to the fore at the cost of something quieter but much richer in character.

The ultimate weakness of Heartless, if I may be so bold as to call it a tragic flaw, is its fixation on the ‘what if’ that spawned the book, more concerned with making a convincing argument than with letting the character change organically. It seems like Meyer opted for the drastic ending not because it suited Catherine in particular, but because it’s an easier ‘what if;’ something an outside viewer would more readily accept as a villain origin story.

In effect, I’m being convinced where I should be enthralled, Catherine’s eventual fate a drag on the story where it should be an asset.

Destiny works in mysterious ways. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.

“The Price Guide to the Occult” Is A Witch Story Sapped of Magic

In The Price Guide to the Occult, Leslye Walton tell us exactly what the curse is right away.

This isn’t exactly a problem for Walton, whose 2016 novel The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is all the more rich for its detailed backstory and family history––we don’t meet the titular character until nearly a hundred pages in, but by then we’ve been endowed with an intimate understanding of the dismal fates of all her ancestors, and are bracing ourselves for whatever ironic/magical/heartbreaking conclusion the future has in store for her.

Walton returns to her multi-generational roots in The Price Guide to the Occult, a rain-soaked contemporary fantasy tale set (again) in the Pacific Northwest. Here, she substitutes a quick-witted prologue for chapters of setup, where a new arrival to the aptly named Anathema Island, Rona Blackburn, under threat by settlers who believe she’s a witch (she is, but that’s beside the point), binds herself to the island to take refuge in its magic, and in effect curses all her descendants, right down to Nor Blackburn, of the present day. No member of the Blackburn lineage has been a proper, spell-casting witch since Rona. Instead, every new daughter is saddled with a specific supernatural Burden: Nor’s grandmother can heal, and Nor herself hears the thoughts and feelings of plants and animals. The curse also extends to the Blackburns’ romantic lives: they’re all doomed to short-lived love stories with (mostly) tragic endings.

Things unfold rather slowly (a misstep, considering the story Price Guide is aiming for), but the book essentially follows Nor as her estranged mother, Fern, makes a very public return to magic. One day, during a routine shift at Anathema Island’s kitschy occult shop, The Witching Hour, a book offering Fern’s mystical services arrives, and within weeks, she commands an army of devoted followers, which Nor watches her amass from a distance, with horror.

But The Price Guide to the Occult‘s iffy attempts at suspense do quite a number on this plot line. For one thing, the threat, even when it arrives in the sickening perfect form of Fern Blackburn, seems distant, unreal, and superfluous at every turn. Nor, at one point, has to go so far as to duck into hiding, but even with all of Walton’s specific gory details, no monstrous thing about Fern comes to life, no part of her sway over her devoted followers is made visible, and so the reader is left not terrified, not fascinated, but baffled––baffled by the power that Fern really has no compelling reason to have, baffled by her influence, her persistent absence for the story, her framing as a villain, her vagueness.

The main ensemble, composed of Nor, her bubbly best friend Savvy, a high school crush named Reed, and his brother Grayson, is similarly sapped of narrative energy, but in a way that’s quite the opposite. They’re almost aggressively normal––Nor, the only would-be witch of the bunch, overwhelmingly so. She’s depicted as fleeing to normalcy, in response to the heavy price and corrupting qualities of her family’s magic, but beyond that, her substance is rather sparse. She just runs and recovers from things and wishes her powers would disappear. This alone isn’t a mistake for a work of fantasy to commit to doing, but there has to be something in the magic itself that truly frightens the main character. It has to show her some dark, demented part of herself she’d rather cower from all her life than see. Here, though, the fuzzy possibility of becoming like her mother is enough to drive Nor away. Away from what, it isn’t really specified, because her Burden, as it appears for most of the book, is a dull thrum too inconsequential to deserve notice most of the time, and magic as it appears otherwise is a pretty passionless affair. When it isn’t conjured in passing, it’s described in the same plainclothes terms as any other mundane task, which almost begs the reader to wonder why it’s regarded as feared or fearsome in the world at all.

Ironically, the best writing in The Price Guide to the Occult arrives in its tragically short flashbacks––the prologue at the beginning, and a few tales of past Blackburn daughters scattered through in scenes and paragraphs when there’s time. Walton is brilliant with flashbacks: she keeps just enough distance to mire the characters in their own ironies and define them with the sharp, fast strokes of a caricaturist. Against these cleanly-crafted silhouettes, details really pop––Walton can make a convincing case for love bringing her characters to their knees in a fraction of the time as it takes for most stories to do so, with just a few carefully-curated images and a discerning gaze that allows her to regard them with distant, narratorly pity.

However well this approach makes for the past, though, it almost repels the present day. Walton gets around this in Ava Lavender by making the story as much about the other residents of the town as it is about Ava, so much so that several characters get this treatment and the whole book feels vividly recounted, rather than lived in real time. But in The Price Guide to the Occult, it’s all Nor, and Walton’s ending-the-curse approach to the plot forces her into Nor’s head, dulling the power of her narration. She tells us often that something terrifies Nor, that Nor shudders to imagine something, that something makes Nor’s pulse race––and it suddenly snaps the book into the past, where it makes much more sense to tell us that a character is frightened than it does to give us the culprit.

It seems, every now and then, like concept and form are at war within these pages. Leslye Walton wants to tell a story about a girl who fights off the dark allure of magic: her choices and her ability to rise to the occasion defeat a deadly force––and she, in terms of movers and shakers, is alone. But her writing, suited to swift and well-defined portraits, and casts of characters that tug and snap at each other more than they effect disaster in the real world, seems to want to tell something entirely different.

“Elatsoe” Is Required Reading for Anyone Who Likes Ghosts, Sleuthing, and a Good Time

In a slightly different America, magic and the supernatural are routine: the federal government regulates the use of fairy circles, powers are passed down like traditions, and vampires are relatively ordinary––if ostracized. This is the world of Darcie Little Badger’s debut YA novel, Elatsoe. It takes some cues from fabulism, where stories more-or-less belong to the contemporary label, and magic, generally a mundane feature of society, takes a subtle back seat, but in stakes, mystery, and scientific sensibilities, Elatsoe is something all its own. A detective puzzle. A ghost story. An adventure. A family reckoning.

At curtain, we meet Ellie, short for Elatsoe, and her dog, Kirby. (And yes, miraculously, amidst everything else, Elatsoe also manages to be a touching girl-and-her-dog story.) But Kirby is more than what only occasionally meets the eye: he’s been dead for five years, and the canine playing with Ellie on page one is an oft-invisible ghost, one Ellie learned to summon at twelve, when members of her Lipan Apache family learn the family secret, along with its corresponding unbreakable rule: the ghosts of animals, both ancient and recently deceased, are fair game. But the human dead are fearsome things, not to be tampered with.

When her cousin Trevor dies in the eerie town of Willowbee, Texas, it’s ruled an accident. But his parting words, given to Ellie in a dream, tell a different story. After this revelation, the murder mystery plot of Elatsoe sets off at a fast clip, and Ellie’s keen eyes, with the close help of her family and a witty best friend, uncover the dark secrets of a too-perfect small town.

In the uncovering of Elatsoe’s plot developments, one key quality of our seventeen-year-old investigator stands out right away: Ellie, uniquely for YA literature, doesn’t stand alone. The nature of Darcie Little Badger’s fantasy world confers a surprising advantage that most paranormal and fantastical circumstances do not: unearthing the truth about Trevor’s death is a family affair, as are Ellie’s dealings with ghosts––we get to see it test Ellie and her family together, and the more dangerous obstacles are faced by a team, rather than one intrepid teenager. Elatsoe reflects, quite generously, the reality that teenagers can, and do, rely on their families, and it doesn’t make them any less capable. A crisis, with the usual friction of an I-want-to-help vs. you-should-stay-safe dispute, doesn’t have to mark an exception.

Connected with this are the largely low-stakes, research-based sleuthing techniques Ellie uses to get a grip on the situation––aside from the paranormal leads. And, yes, this is a very niche thing to get excited about, but the way Little Badger skillfully incorporates history into the proceedings lends so much richness to the novel, injecting intensity and urgency into gaps in the town’s record where unsavory details have been papered over. The revelations you can derive from an afternoon of research (and Elatsoe is filled to the brim with the nitty-gritty of afternoons of research) are the bread and butter of this novel’s truly fascinating process. What’s more, they’re genuinely feasible for our young protagonist who’s been told to stay out of trouble, rendering a strikingly grounded central plot against a setting of magic and wonder.

Little Badger’s worldbuilding is gorgeously fluid. Details emerge organically and so much of it feels unexplored––not in a wasted-potential way, but in a sense that’s true to life, where every novel has side characters with lives lived mostly off the page, and Elatsoe gives the tantalizing impression that there are as many forms of magic as there are cultures, and what we see here is the tiniest impression of a world as genuinely varied as our own.

The traditions in Ellie’s family are also tied to a rich history of story, with tales of Ellie’s Six-Great (eight generations back) grandmother making occasional appearances. The narrative threads of Elatsoe feel like so much more than themselves, connected by storytelling to the distant, legendary past, and tied by Ellie’s skill to the ghosts of a far earlier time.

Elatsoe has adventure, fairy circles, and ghost dogs, but the coolest thing in it by far is an abundance of creatures from the Ice Age and beyond. In an act of unabashed nerdiness, Little Badger uses the paranormal elements of her creation to awaken through fiction a mammoth, a trilobite, and whales of eons past, an indulgence that’s incredibly rare in speculative fiction, but so overwhelmingly cool that every work without it present is suddenly operating at a massive loss.

The most impressive quality of Elatsoe, though, is that it uses the strange and divine precisely how our world would use it, running the gamut from beauty to terror. It has magic that exploits the natural world and takes advantage of the vulnerable. It has wondrous but tightly-guarded secrets. It has dogs that are loved long after their deaths. It has an expansive sense of time that’s only broadened by dances with the metaphysical. Elatsoe, in these terms, is miraculous: it brings the faraway close, and somehow grounds the lofty without crushing it.