[Heartless] Marissa Meyer

I love the cover of my edition.

I love the cover of my edition.

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Heartless is the story of the Queen of Hearts before she was the Queen of Hearts, before she was cold and angry, before she called incessantly for the heads of those who had wronged her. Before she was the Queen of Hearts she was Catherine, a girl who daydreamed about falling in love and of starting a bakery full of the treats she had created by her own hands. Renowned for her cakes and tarts, she’s caught the eyes and the heart of the foolish King of Hearts, who is not what she envisions for a future husband at all. Unfortunately for Cath, her mother and father desire something more for her than a floured apron. As her future comes closer, Cath starts running out of options. If she wants to avoid her fate, she must try to find another path.

I was really excited to read Heartless because The Lunar Chronicles is a really good young adult series. Perhaps it’s because Heartless is a standalone, but I really didn’t find it as engaging as her series. I didn’t feel bored, exactly, but I felt a little like I was reading just to pass the time, rather than reading for pure pleasure. In fact, I ended up setting the book aside for a week because of work and didn’t feel a drive to return to it. Not in the way that The Lunar Chronicles had me going back.

This book is well-written but I’m left feeling underwhelmed at its overall content. I don’t know if I went into it expecting more than it was able to give, but I didn’t find this quite the page-turner that I expected it to be. I loved Meyer’s first series and had high hopes that I would enjoy this one just as much, but ultimately it’s only just okay.

The idea of before in Heartless was really interesting. I liked that it was an origin story of a character who is traditionally viewed as a villain. Catherine’s descent into the familiar red-faced Queen of Hearts was, for the most part, well thought out and written. But somewhere around the middle the book just dragged.

The first half of the book consisted of Catherine focusing on her dream and how she would gain it. When she meets Jest, the new court Joker, it should have gotten more interesting.  Heartless claimed to be about a secret courtship between them. What I got was an indecisive girl that didn’t know what she wanted and was torn between dreams and the reality of what her parents wanted. She was very whiny.  I also didn’t feel that Jest was very well-developed, so compared to Catherine, he was kind of bland. His backstory was interesting and I would have loved to see more of it, but there just wasn’t time in the novel.

I think that it’s sometimes difficult to keep readers interested in retellings when they kind of already know the story. I felt that inevitability in Heartless. It dragged down the story at times because it was inevitable who she was going to become, that the Jabberwock was going to be problem, that there was going to be something in Cath’s life that made her turn toward anger.

While the characters are familiar, only parts of their characterization are to me, because I’ve yet to read the original story. Obviously, the Hatter has to be mad, but I liked the way that his madness was explored and explained. Along with Jest, I would have really liked to see more of their lives before they met Cath. Something that The Lunar Chronicles excelled at was making a reader care about the secondary characters.

Even though I was a little slow to get through the book, I ended up really liking the ending. So much so, that I was actually disappointed that it was the end. I wanted to see more of this new Cath. The buildup into her character as a villain was worth it. This moment was perfect–just the right amount of darkness. It was just unfortunate that it was at the end, because I felt that the real strength of the book was here. You could really see that Meyer had been building to this point. More of those feelings would have benefited the book in the pages before it.

I think that this is a good retelling, it just wasn’t for me. I really loved the fact that it focused on a villain rather than Alice (who I think was only mentioned in passing). There were familiar characters who were expanded upon and it made the story richer. I only wish the novel had gotten to the good stuff sooner.

3 stars.

[Wintersong] S. Jae-Jones

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Wintersong is the story of what happens when you make wishes and promises to a mysterious stranger and they come to collect. Liesl is nineteen and dreams of composing, but she’s put her desires on hold in order to help out at her family inn, train her brother for a position as a violinist, and indulge her younger sister in her vanities. Liesl has to content herself with snatched moments and hidden scraps of her compositions as she acts as the strong, older sister. But when her younger sister is stolen by the Goblin King, Liesl has to remember the songs and stories of her childhood in order to save her from a Goblin King who deals in riddles and trades. Suddenly, Liesl finds herself in a precarious position deep underground in the world of the Goblin King. It is there that she discovers more about herself than she ever allowed herself to learn. As she passes the threshold from innkeeper girl to adult composer, Liesl has to make a choice about just how much she is willing to sacrifice.

Wintersong had an extremely strong start. Jae-Jones introduced us to her world slowly using beautiful language reminiscent of music. The story promised touches of the fantastic that is often found in fairy tales. I truly enjoyed reading how Jae-Jones used words to construct a familiar yet fairy tale-esque world. The inclusion of Christina Rossetti’s poetry at the beginning of each part of the book also set the stage for what was to happen perfectly without giving too much away. Threaded throughout the story was the language of classical music. Sadly I didn’t understand this as well as I understood the poetry due to the fact that I never studied music in the way that Jae-Jones seems to have. I thought it was a really unique way of writing. It wasn’t something that I had seen before. I was glad that Jae-Jones used it to enhance her writing rather than overwhelm her story with it.

I really thought that using music as a way to create more stunning imagery was wonderful. It’s one of the reasons why the writing style was so engaging for me; even though I struggled to get through the second half of the book at times, the writing kept me reading. The one downside to using music so much is that any time something sexy or sexual came up, music was used as a metaphor. There was a fair bunch of cringey lines that were repetitive or just plain corny. I much preferred when it wasn’t used that way, because I just could not see anyone ever using these lines on their romantic interest.

The thing that is really odd about Wintersong is the way that the book is split in two. Other reviewers have mentioned it and I feel compelled to as well. There is a clear divide between part one and part two, and for me, there wasn’t much of a bridge between the two of them. I understand the connection, but character-wise, it was like I was reading another book or a book where the characters, namely Liesl, weren’t fully realized.

Honestly, I was far more interested in the first half. It focused on family and Liesl’s love of them. Even though she had given up her dreams in favor of her brother and sister’s, even though her mother and father didn’t really believe in her the way they believed in her brother, you could see the love that she felt for all of them. I liked that part one was a love story to her family. Liesl was desperate to protect both her brother and her sister, but she couldn’t divide her time equally. Focusing on her brother’s future nearly lost her sister’s future; when Liesl realizes this, the love she feels for her sister demands that she engage in the impossible task of saving her.

Her journey into the Underground was a wonderful blend of familiar and unfamiliar myth. I have a very surface level understanding of Goblins and their Underground, so I’m not sure how much was of Jae-Jones own design and how much was the usual spiel. I loved that there was an element of sacrifice, which further showed just how desperate Liesl was to get her sister back and how much she loved her sister. Everything Liesl did in the first half marked her as an incredible and incredibly interesting heroine who was spunky and wouldn’t take any garbage from anyone around her, particularly when she’s Underground. She was so interesting and she easily made the first half of the book a  4 or 5 star read.

That’s why the departure from this is the second half of the novel was so disconcerting. She was, technically, still spunky and outspoken. But too many times it became her throwing a tantrum or refusing to act like an adult, while at the same time complaining about not being treated as an adult. I was confused, because Liesl didn’t seem like the Liesl that had been present in the first half of the book. She became less of a heroine and more of a whiner who near-constantly thought that there was something wrong with her or complained about the Goblin King not liking her enough. It became a mope fest.

Something that part two also introduced was the idea of this novel as less of a young adult novel and more of a new adult novel. I read both, so it didn’t bother me that there was sex scenes in the book. What did bother me was that I felt kind of blindsided by this. It just seemed out of place. Honestly, I felt that the sex scenes weren’t really necessary. They furthered my annoyance with Liesl because I didn’t feel that she was the same character that she was in the first half. She became obsessed with her love interest, and that wasn’t cool.

Throughout the majority of the second part I wished that it would go back to what I had loved about the first half: the exploration of the Underground, the love she felt for her family, and the willingness to go to hell-and-back for her sister. That was where Jae-Jones’ storytelling really shone and where she could weave her mythology about the Goblins and the Goblin King. I really liked that humans were often tricked into positions by the Goblins. Even knowing this, Liesl is often tricked by both them and the Goblin King. Her naivety in the first half is because she doesn’t care what she has to do to rescue her sister; her naivety in the second half is because she is blinded by a relationship. Throughout the novel there are stories of both the brave and the beautiful (re: stupid) girl–Liesl manages to be both.

There is talk of a sequel that will be out at some point in 2018, so perhaps some of the loose ends of the story will be concluded in that. I can never decide if I like loose ends or not. What it usually comes down to is if the author manage to portray the loose ends in a way that I personally like and it’s often very arbitrary. So while I liked the conclusion of Wintersong,  I am also curious about what is going to happen in the sequel. I also wonder if it will end up being a sequel or a companion novel because I’ve read rumors about that too.

There are so many different nods to things in Wintersong that I think it’s welcoming to a variety of readers. Fairy tales, and not necessarily the happy ending ones; Labyrinth, which I’ve never seen (so I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing); poetry, some of which I was familiar with; and music. The music was my absolute favorite part. I thought it was lovely to pull that theme through the entirety of the novel and made the writing exceptionally beautiful. I really think this is going to be popular for people who like all or some of those things.

Despite really liking it, the partial disconnect I felt between the first half and the second half of the novel really threw me off and brought my rating lower.

3 stars.

Wintersong will be available on February 7th, 2017. I received an ARC from the publisher and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

[Mad about the Hatter] Dakota Chase

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I thoroughly enjoyed this retelling of Alice in Wonderland. I’ve never read any of Lewis Carroll’s work other than a few of his poems, but I know enough of Alice to find it familiar. Dakota Chase took the story and turned it on its head a bit. Instead of a young girl protagonist, we have her brother. There’s quite an age gap between them, and Henry proves to be just enough of an angsty 17 year old to appear real but not too angsty to become horribly annoying. Henry has heard stories of Wonderland since he was a young child. It’s always frustrated him that something bad happened to his sister and he’s never heard the truth. Henry believes that since he’s almost an adult he deserves the real story. Obviously, Wonderland is not a real place. Mad Hatters, endless tea parties, and violent, paranoid Red Queens are the things of fairy tales. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself face to face with a hookah smoking, talking Caterpillar?

Perhaps because Henry has always denounced Alice’s stories, when he finds himself in Wonderland he really can’t believe that everything that starts happening to him is truly happening. His misgivings, fears, and curiosity were nice to read. Finding yourself in another world is cool, but I find it unrealistic when characters don’t reflect on their new surroundings. They sometimes accept them too quickly. The changes in Henry are realistic and very gradual. They don’t happen immediately, and it allows his relationships with the inhabitants of Wonderland to progress slowly. Henry’s curiosity allowed us to see parts of Wonderland that Hatter would have had us pass through quickly.

This is the second male / male romance novel I’ve read, the first being Always Leaving, a short novel by Gene Gant that I received from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. (Found here) It was a less than stellar romance, between stalking-like behavior and a not so amazing romantic connection between the two male leads. So I was a little worried that I’d find the same here: romance that was forced and not realistic. This was so lovely. Henry and Hatter were both very confident with their sexuality. There was no waffling about how they felt. It was very straightforward: love is just love. They’ve both had various romantic tangles with various genders. There was an emphasis on finding that person that gave them the spark and not so much on anything else.

I wish there had been more time spent in setting up Wonderland. Everything that was included was incredibly visual, but there just wasn’t enough. I would have loved to see more areas as Henry and Hatter journeyed all over Wonderland.  Mad about the Hatter was whimsical in its scene setting and had some of the most entertaining similes. I had a lot of fun reading this novel and would recommend it for people who enjoy retellings of fairy tales. It’s a nice companion to the original story. Mad about the Hatter is set in contemporary times with elements of the old mixed in.

4 stars.

I received a copy of this title from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Mad about the Hatter was available on August 20th, 2015.