If you know me, you know I love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. And if you know the world of YA, you know that authors love to attempt to reinvent the wheel as far as Wonderland is concerned. So many of them like to paint the land as one at war, usually over the use or abuse of magic. And the rest love to paint it as a land where madness is mandatory. And neither of them of those interpretations (taking the infamous quote “We’re all mad here” as literally as possible), really capture what I love about Wonderland, which is less sinister and more whimsical. Yet I still devour all of it, in hopes that eventually I’d find the book that understood what I was looking for on a deeper level, and would be able to articulate what I loved in a way that I cannot do here.
And I think I finally found it. Heartless, by Marissa Meyer of the The Lunar Chronicles, is a prequel to Alice’s Adventures, examining how a girl could grow to be the cruel Queen of Hearts. And what I like most about it is that it’s not set in the center of a war-torn nation, nor is the queen the stereotypical hat-askew bloodlust “mad” the way these things often paint the beloved characters. Instead, the elements we recognize are woven in seamlessly to a love story we don’t know, and the result is just a delight. Spoilers to follow…
Heartless takes place in the Kingdom of Hearts. Wonderland is never mentioned, though there is a kingdom called Chess, which is accessed by going through a Looking Glass maze. But we’ll get to that in a minute. When we open, Catherine (often called Cath; Cath is the hot abbreviation these days) is the daughter of the Marquess and Marchioness of Rock Turtle Cove, and she, along with her lady’s maid and best friend Mary Ann, dreams of opening her own bakery and unleashing her delicious baked goods on the kingdom. But her mother the Marchioness has larger dreams, which mostly involve throwing Catherine in the path of the King of Hearts, who is sweet, dopey, and super single. (He also has eyes for Catherine and her baked goods – not a euphemism – so this isn’t as awkward as it might otherwise be.)
At a black and white ball, Catherine realizes the King is about to propose to her, so in a panic, she asks her friend the Cheshire Cat for a distraction, and slips out in the ensuing chaos, only to run right into the brand new court Joker, who is naturally a devilishly handsome young gent by the name of Jest. They flirt, get a few good inside jokes under their trousers and/or corsets, and if you think this is all leading towards a public courtship with the King but secret requited love with the court Joker, you would be right. Catherine obviously doesn’t want to get married to the King, because while he is kind, he’s not particularly bright. Not to mention she thinks she’s a bit young for marriage, and she knows that becoming the Queen means she can never open the bakery. Of course, she’s also too high-ranking to ever be with a court Joker, but forbidden romance is always more fun than a forced marriage with an older man. It’s a bit of an obvious trope, but it’s executed so well, I can’t complain. Jest is appropriately mysterious, Catherine is just curiously rebellious enough, and through their relationship, we get introduced to all of the other Wonderland characters we so love.
The Caterpillar, here Mr. Caterpillar, is a cobbler who is retiring, thus leaving his storefront open to potential renters (perhaps an enterprising young Lady baker?). That leads Catherine to have a meeting with the landlord, who is perhaps my favorite character: the sad Pygmalion Warthog, Duke of Tuskany. He’s a literal pig (many “people” are animals here), who appears arrogant but is actually horribly shy, in possession of a cook who uses too much pepper in everything, and in love with Catherine’s unattractive friend Margaret Mearle, who (spoilers) will eventually become The Duchess. There is a B-plot of Catherine agreeing to play matchmaker for Duke Warthog and Margaret, which pays off eventually. Unfortunately, the announcement of Margaret’s engagement to the Duke comes at a time when Catherine is suffering a great loss, so she is less than gracious, and the friendship is fractured.
The Mad Hatter, here called Hatta, is a hatter whose creations are just so slightly (but secretly) magic. He and his friend Sir Haigha (“rhymes with mayor, but spelled with a g“) throw tea parties for their unusual friends in the hat shop after hours. Hatta, as it turns out, is actually old friends with Jest. They both come from the aforementioned neighboring land of Chess. Hatta is jumping between the two worlds (the Looking Glass maze is very difficult to navigate, and requires your typical fairyland sacrifice of unusual and personal tolls) because he is running away from Time, and the curse on his family that leads to eventual madness. Jest, on the other hand, is originally from Chess, perpetually at war between the White and Red Queens. Jest is a Rook for the White Queen, and has come to Hearts on a mission, to bring back the heart of a queen so his side may win the war. And that is when Catherine learns that her forbidden love has been pushing her towards the King so she may become Queen, but pulling her towards himself, so her heart will be freely given. It’s a bit of a sticky situation.
Meanwhile, as all of this interpersonal drama is happening, there is a Jabberwock attacking everyone. (Bummer.) The origin of the Jabberwock I won’t spoil, as it is a nice twist, but I will say that Meyer is really very good at weaving in a lot of different stories, fairytales, nursery rhymes, and poems, not just Lewis Carroll’s, in a way that is seamless but still gives you the fun of getting to identify each one. (I definitely had to look up Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater, who is a character in this, to be certain it wasn’t a work of Carroll’s, because it fit in so well I wasn’t sure.)
It all culminates with a tragic death as part of a fulfilled prophecy, and Catherine assuming the throne in the throes of grief, deciding to cast aside all of her friendships, and hardening her heart to the world, and to Hearts, finally completing the transformation into the Queen we all know and may or may not love. I actually saw a subway ad today for the book (that’s a thing? Or rather, that’s a thing if you’re not James Patterson?) that described it as a “reverential” take on Wonderland, and that is quite accurate. This is a work that respects its source material, reveres it, and it was so delightful for me to read.