twist on fairytale
"Heartless" is the origin story for the Queen of Hearts (of Alice in Wonderland fame). Catherine, destined to be the queen of hearts, is a young woman who dreams of being a baker and falling in love. As the Marquess's daughter, however, this is not practical. Like most noblewomen, she is expected to marry well and live in idle luxury. Despite this, she constantly dreams of making her own way as a common laborer and working with her best friend and maid, Mary Ann, who has a head for numbers and business. Catherine plans to feed the king her most magnificent creation yet and get his blessing as the best baker in Hearts, starting her business off on the right foot. However, her plans go awry when the King's thoughts are less about her pastries and more about her suitability as his queen.
Catherine's life is further complicated by the new court joker from Chess, Jest, who she first saw in a dream and who is handsomely devastating. He saves her from a tight corset at the ball where she was to be made queen. Although Catherine knows she should marry the king and give up her dreams, she can't help but wish for the life she wants, as a simple baker, married to Jest and working with Mary Ann. Fate does not agree with her.
The book is somewhat slow to get going, as this alternate world is built and characters (from Alice's adventures) are introduced throughout. Some of them seem to be included just for the connections, but I found most of them to be a little extraneous/unnecessary in this book, dragging out the story a bit too much. However, the last 25% was absolutely incredible and the way that the story is woven was unexpected and made so much sense that it was almost nonsensical (in the way only Wonderland can be). Everything comes together in such an unpredictable way that makes so much sense in the end. I was at the edge of my seat seeing it all happen.
The romance was pretty good between Catherine and Jest, but I wasn't over-the-moon about their relationship. I saw how she could get caught in him, but this was like most teenager/Romeo&Juliet style insta-love and passionate/overwhelming lust. The king really didn't seem so bad, but he represented everything that was keeping Catherine trapped, while Jest was everything she ever dreamed her life could hold. You have to be able to buy into Jest/Catherine a little more than I could while reading. That being said, it was easy to see why they became so passionate about the other and how this played out at the end.
Overall, it was an incredible villain origin story that ended so fantastically the meanderings along the way were (mostly) forgotten. The author says she was inspired by Gregory Maguire's books, and I could definitely see the influence. For fans of Maguire, this book will definitely be a win!