Review: Heartless

-this review contains spoilers-

“But hoping,” he said, “is how the impossible can be possible after all.”

When I started reading Heartless, I totally forgot that it was a Queen of Hearts origin story. I had this book on my reading list for ages because of my adoration for Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, but by the time I finally got to pick it up, I had forgotten what it was even about. That is probably why a lot of my annoyances while reading the book came from the shoehorned Alice in Wonderland references. Between the pepper chef, the rocking horse flies, the smoking caterpillar, the line about the Tweedles, the jabberwocky, hedgehog croquet, and Cheshire himself, I found myself gritting my teeth with the obviousness of it all and how unlike Meyer it was. Then I got to the end and realized that this was actually all backstory for one of the most iconic villains of all time, which placated me a little bit– but not very much.

Heartless-Marissa-Meyer-Book-Cover-Feature

Because with that being said… I don’t think this is a solid origin story. At all. Meyer’s characters and plot points would have worked so much better as a retelling similar to The Lunar Chronicles, which used their original fairytales as a touchstone rather than as a strict reference text. For example: while the traditional Wonderland aspect carries over well in that Hearts is full of frustratingly obtuse folks, I found myself infinitely more interested in Chess than in Hearts. It seemed counterproductive for an entire world to be created (especially one created by Melissa Meyer) only for us to spend no time there. Instead of absorbing a fresh new world with fresh new rules and characters, we had to spend this entire story trudging through a slight variation of the same world we have been force-fed for ages.

For years, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was one of my favorite pieces of literature. I loved it so much that I did an entire stylized photoshoot around it, was gifted a first edition of the book (swoon), and even considered a tattoo inspired by the story. [Emma of Emma Reads Too Much has some pretty spot-on thoughts on Carroll’s original book that you should absolutely read here.] Unfortunately, there have been so many renditions and interpretations of it that it has lost much of its magic for me. I hated Tim Burton’s two movies on the subject and have grown to loathe the excessive amount of themed gifts found in bookstores and indie shops.

The themes of time and repetition in Heartless were reminiscent of Burton’s concepts, and the endless litany of overt references to the original book felt self-gratuitous. This was the opposite of why I was excited for a Wonderland-themed book by Meyer in the first place– she has left me delighted and entranced by her inventiveness and originality, while still making the reader glow with twists on traditional references (i.e.: a cyborg foot for Cinderella’s shoe, a satellite orbiting in space for Rapunzel’s tower). Sadly, this book left me disappointed by absolutely everyone except Jest and The Sisters.

I was particularly peeved by the Marchioness and ‘Hatta’. The Marchioness was the true villain of the story. She’s controlling, verbally abusive, and is endlessly fat-shaming the main character. I couldn’t believe that no one ever stood up to her, especially in a book by the Melissa Meyer, where the leads tend to be brave and stand up for themselves. I wanted so badly to adore Hatta. Carroll’s Hatter is one of the most off-the-wall and quirky characters of all time, and as much as I disliked Burton/Depp’s rendition, he still managed to make me feel emotional and nostalgic. But Hatta is a sorry excuse for the dynamic and heart-breaking character he could have been. When we’re first introduced, my thought was “a female Hatter would have been a nice change” but that quickly turned into “wow I totally ship Hatta and Jest over Cath and Jest.” Which isn’t out of the normal for me, but then! It turns out! That Hatta loved Jest all along! But never said anything! I cry foul. That’s queerbaiting if I’ve ever seen it. I disagreed with people who claimed BBC’s Sherlock and Watson was queerbaiting. I even partially disagreed with people who felt that Albus and Scorpius’s relationship in Rowling’s Cursed Child was queerbaiting. But this was shameful. To hint at it for 300 pages only to reveal the truth and have Jest killed without ever knowing, leading Hatta to go mad with sorrow, is despicable. I expected so much better from Meyer than half-baked LGBTQ+ representation.

I’ve been so enamored with Meyer’s brand of kickass female leads– with her women and girls who solve things and save people and stick up for others and strive to be better– that Cath was an unparalleled disappointment. She was indecisive, spineless, whiny, and intolerant. As I’ve mentioned before, indecisiveness is a big pet peeve for me. Cath’s repetitive reasoning and cyclical complaining was downright exhausting, especially because she never did anything to actively change her fate. Insta-love also plays a huge role in this story, which is something that automatically sets me on edge. I’ve read The Lunar Chronicles three times, and have always been pleased by the fact that Meyer writes the romance in a way that leaves the reader very invested without feeling that it’s the centerpiece of the story. Heartless utterly fails in that regard. The warring world of Chess and the endless deaths occurring there are apparently insignificant in the face of a month-long love affair.

Long story short, Heartless left me disappointed in more ways than one. I’ve come to expect much better from Melissa Meyer than under-cooked storylines and half-hearted characters. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland always has, and always will, deserve better.

alice-wonderland-adult-colouring


When I first started this blog, I wanted to do something called Eye-Roll Reviews. The idea came to me after reading The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, which had me rolling my eyes on every page. I haven’t read any such books (until this one) since I started writing reviews on here, so I haven’t quite worked out how to format such a review. So for now, I’m just going to list my eye-roll-inducing lines, in case any other readers were annoyed by the same things.

“It had been a hazy, beautiful dream, and in it there had been a hazy, beautiful boy.”

“But she had not realized that he was also quite handsome.”

“Impossible was his specialty. The way he had touched her hand had awoken something inside her she had never felt before. Something giddy, but also nervous. Something curious, but also afraid. And if her dreams were to be believed, he was a very, very good kisser.”

“Romance. Passion. Love. She had never experienced them before, but she imagined they would leave her feeling like that dream had. Like the Joker did, with his quick smiles and witty remarks. She felt like she could talk to him for hours, for days and months and years, and never tire of it.” (Girl, you JUST MET HIM.)

“He did, however, offer his elbow, which she accepted, folding her fingers around his arm and surprised to find more muscle there than his lithe frame would suggest.”

“Overnight her life had become a whirlpool, sucking her below the surface.”

On Deus ex Machina

Prompted by: The Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Deus ex machina. Latin for “God from the machine” and often loosely translated to “the god in the machine.” Originally, this expression was a reference to an actual machine used in the performance of Greek plays. A physical device would be used to bring the actors playing gods onto the stage. Sometimes this was a crane that would lower the gods from above, or sometimes a riser that boosted them up from a trapdoor in the stage. The concept of introducing gods into the story was often used to resolve conflict or conclude a plot point.

god in the machine

By I, Sailko, CC BY 2.5

Today, the term is used to reference a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the unexpected intervention of a new character/object/ability/event/etc. The key here is that regardless of what this new thing may be, by its very definition, it shouldn’t have been previously queued up or alluded to. This means that a true deus ex machina will likely leave the reader saying “What! Seriously?!” after its appearance, because there really wasn’t any way for them to have seen it coming. While utilizing this plot device isn’t always lazy, it does seem to be most often utilized by lazy writers.

Popular debates over possible deus ex machinas include: the elder wand/wand lore/wand ownership in Rowling’s Deathly Hallows, the eagles in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Thoros of Myr repeatedly bringing people back to life in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

The book that got me pondering this plot device is the third and final book in Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy. As a little recap: I devoured the first book in the series, The Queen of the Tearling. It featured some of my favorite elements in a story: a strong female lead (who doesn’t display any of my major pet peeves), no overt or unnecessary romance, well-written political intrigue, and inventive and original world-building. The second book, The Invasion of the Tearling, wasn’t quite as solid but was still thoroughly enjoyable. Johansen included a lot of flashbacks through the eyes of a new character, which made it a little more difficult to stay grounded in the main storyline. However, it’s easily forgivable because the character featured in the flashbacks is dynamic and brave as well. Then comes the third book, The Fate of the Tearling. While the first half of the book isn’t flat-out disappointing, it is clear from the start that it is nowhere near as strong as the previous books were. Sadly, Johansen seemed to have painted herself into a corner and created the biggest cop-out of an ending that I have ever read.

-SPOILER ALERT-

Our heroine uses time travel via her sapphire to alter the timeline and create a happy ending in which no one except herself remembers what happens. All of the characters we spent two and a half books connecting with are suddenly obliterated and their storylines are erased. The battle royale that the entire trilogy was building to is eliminated in the blink of an eye. There is no showdown, no reveal, no resolution. Just a tired trope.

The argument that some fans have made is that because the sapphires were present all along, it’s fine that they demonstrated these excessive powers and magically resolved everything. People have also said that Kelsea was a selfless queen who was willing to do anything to protect her people, even if it meant suffering alone for the rest of her life. While those are both fair assertions and might eliminate the possibility of the sapphires being a deus ex machina, neither of them change the fact that it was a lazy choice. Proper story outlining and planning would have eliminated the need for such a drastic and uncharacteristic move.

-spoiler-free content resumes below-

I think my issue with plot devices like this is that they just end up feeling like a betrayal of the characters that we’ve grown attached to. I discussed lazy betrayals in a previous post, and I think it’s a similar situation here. It seems safe to say that most readers want their favorite characters to make choices and moves that are on par with what we already know about them. We want our writers to do them justice because that’s what keeps us immersed in the story. And immersion is the mark of a truly good story.

Pet Peeves in Female Characters

Prompted by: The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo, Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas, and Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

If there’s one thing I really appreciate in a book, it’s a strong female lead. Give me a dynamic girl who has character flaws and hard decisions to make and realistic personality traits, and I’ll sing her praises to kingdom come. Sadly, it seems like I’ve come across more and more poorly written female leads lately. Maybe part of that is because my reading list this summer was largely composed of fantasy and romance novels so the odds simply weren’t in my favor.

Half of me is happy that writers are even making an effort to create female leads at all, but the other half of me is feels as if a poorly written female lead might be worse than no female lead at all.  So with that being said, here are my top 5 pet peeves when writing female characters.

Giving a character no redeeming qualities… but somehow everyone gravitates towards them anyway.

This is Alina from Shadow and Bone through and through. She’s surly, she’s self-depreciative, and every description of her paints her as an unappealing and unattractive person. One of her wards at the orphanage described her by saying: “She’s an ugly little thing. No child should look like that. Pale and sour, like a glass of milk that’s turned.” She’s short with her best friend, rude to people she meets for the first time, negative about her own abilities, and unwilling to meet anyone halfway. And yet, people fawn over her, follow her, fight for her, and profess their love for her. There’s a line between a believable character and an unappealing one. Everyone has shortcomings, and it’s a mark of a good writer to include those. But it’s also a mark of a good writer to make sure their characters have redeeming qualities as well. We have to understand what it is about them that inspires affection and admiration, and it has to be believable.

Overemphasis on looks.

I don’t need or want a page about the exact details of someones physical features. I don’t need to know about their bone structure and the precise shade of their skin and the way the grey flecks in their blue eyes shimmer whenever they turn their gaze upon you. Instead, provide a few grounding details and let the reader flesh out the rest. One of the most magical things about a good book is that the reader can imagine themselves as the hero. Hermione is a perfect example of this– her first introduction describes her as having “lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth.” That’s it. All of her other interactions and descriptions revolve around her intelligence and personality, not her appearance. This allows readers to envision Hermione as someone they would want to emulate and someone they can relate to.

hermione
Artist: mariannewiththesteadyhands via tumblr
Girl on girl hate.

I have zero patience for automatic negativity between girls. I hate the frequency with which it shows up in media because it perpetuates a hugely unhealthy social norm. We see it in Game of Thrones (more on that in a future post) and Stranger Things and Shadow and Bone and so many other books and shows and movies. A glaring example of this can be found in The Circle by Dave Eggers– and it’s even more infuriating because it’s written by a man. Honestly, I could write an entire post about what’s wrong with The Circle. (For me, it was comparable to The Hunger Games in that it’s a brilliant idea but it was poorly executed.) The Circle is a good example of a situation where an author simply shouldn’t have written a female lead. The way Eggers writes his main character, Mae, makes it feel like she’s what he thinks women are like, rather than how they really are. She’s one-dimensional, contentious, emotional, easily distracted, extremely sexual, and consistently gets jealous of/mad at her female best friend. The relationship between the two young women is fraught with shallow behavior and poor communication. Rather than writing a healthy relationship, he crafts a vindictive and negative one. A good example of the opposite can be found between Celia and Isobel in Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. Celia and Isobel are two strong and dynamic females who end up involved with the same romantic interest. Normally, this would be the perfect situation for an author to write in snarky dialogue and overt jealousy. Instead, both women handle the situation with grace and class, and even have respectful and constructive conversations with each other. It’s positive and uplifting and more books should follow suit.

Making romance seem like the most important thing that could possibly happen to a woman.

This goes hand-in-hand with insta-love in a lot of ways. Girl ventures into the great big world, girls meets boy, boy shows interest, girls falls head over heels. The trope of writing in adoration over the first man to show interest in a female is tiring and not very believable. Sure, it’s nice to feel desirable, but there’s more important things in life than infatuation.  Romance has its place in the literary world, but insta-love implies that romance is the most important thing there is. Romantic relationships are not a judge of character and the worth of a woman shouldn’t be weighed based on her relationship status. Kelsea provides a very refreshing take on this in Queen of the Tearling. She is a young woman (and queen) surrounded by strapping men of all ages, but get this– she doesn’t instantly develop romantic feelings towards any of them! Erika Johansen handles it in a very realistic way by not pretending that people aren’t attracted to each other, but rather keeping the focus on the more important things that require our main character’s attention.

Excessive indecision or an inability to make up her mind.

Let’s be real, decisions are hard, and sometimes they take up a lot of mental real estate. That is normal and natural and it can definitely be a difficult thing to convey in writing when we aren’t spending every second inside a character’s head. With that being said, ceaseless indecision is annoying to the max. Nyx in Rosamund Hodge’s Cruel Beauty is an all-too-excessive example of this. She hates her sister one minute, the next she’s crying over how she didn’t treat her better. She hates the Gentle Lord, then five minutes later she’s stroking his hair and watching him sleep. She’s plotting to save her world but then decides to just do her own thing a few pages later. It’s exhausting and ever so unnecessary.


At the end of the day, I just want to believe in these characters. I want to read about women I would be friends with and women that I can see myself in. I want more Hermione Grangers and Blue Sargents and Septembers and Arya Starks. I want girls and women who are beautiful because of their bravery and special because of their strength. They shouldn’t be perfect– they should be real.