The best way to describe Marissa Meyer’s Heartless is as a character study of Catherine Pinkerton, the future Queen of Hearts. Yes, there is some action and definitely a story, but it does take a few chapters to really get there.
But I didn’t mind that. What Meyer does in these chapters is introduce us to who Catherine is, which makes it all the more powerful in the end to see who she becomes. Because we all (or most of us) are familiar with the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. She’s angry, impatient, and cuts off heads first and asks questions later. We know going in that this story is going to be a tragedy. It’s not so much about what happens, but how. How does a good and likable person become so merciless? You have to take the time to get there, and that is what Heartless does.
Catherine Pinkerton isn’t all that unusual of a protagonist. She’s young, hopeful, fairly clever, and tries to be a decent person. All she wants is to open a bakery with her best friend, Mary Ann. Except Mary Ann is also her maid, and Cath is the daughter of a Marquess. And a Marquess’ daughter does not bake or run a business. Catherine’s mother has much grander hopes than that: she intends to see Cath marry the king, who is, unfortunately, a very simple, albeit gentle, man. To further complicate matters, Cath starts to fall for the king’s mysterious jester, of whom her parents would definitely not approve.
What makes Cath different from your average protagonist and keeps you aware that, no matter how much you might want otherwise, this story will not end well, are her flaws. Her fatal flaw is her spinelessness. She wants things, but she does not fight for them. She might dare to ask for them, she’ll take them if they’re presented to her, but if it looks like there’s no chance, she gives in. You might hate this about her, but Meyer is careful to show us Cath’s reasoning, so it’s not hard to understand why she backs down. She wants to please her parents, so she hides her bakery plan until she has all the details in place, so that it will appear as impressive as possible to them. She doesn’t want to hurt or humiliate the king, so she agrees to court him, thinking she can show him with time that they aren’t a fit. Cath’s road to hell is paved with good, fairly reasonable, intentions.
We also get flashes of other traits that on their own aren’t any big deal, but in the context of belonging to the future Queen of Hearts, take on new meaning. Cath is impulsive, more prone to hold a grudge than try to understand, a little judgmental, and doesn’t like to shoulder guilt. Seemingly harmless and kind of relatable given some of the people she has to put up with (the Knave and Margaret particularly), over the course of the story you see how they lead Cath into trouble and/or grow into the more ominous traits of the Queen.
Beyond Cath, Heartless includes other characters fans of Alice in Wonderland should recognize. The Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, March Hare, and Jabberwocky all make appearances, along with a few more. Meyer also ties in characters outside of Wonderland, such as Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater and Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven, which fit unexpectedly well. The best character, in my opinion, is the charming Jest, Cath’s love interest, and basically the whole reason you’ll spend your reading experience denying the inevitable.
What’s nice about the world-building is that Meyer sends us into Wonderland assuming that we know it from Alice’s adventure. There’s no info-dumping or unnecessary reacquainting us with the details. The nonsensical world is what it is, and that’s normal for these characters. Animals talk, food can be magical and potentially dangerous, and they play croquet with flamingos and hedgehogs, all without question. That sort of explanation is saved for the new and important details Meyer has invented or reworked for her story.
While I think Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series is better, Heartless is an enjoyable read. I recommend it for fans of romance, character exploration, and of course, Alice in Wonderland.