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.