Reviewed by Lori Fox
Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
"...Heartless can easily play with the big boys in either the Christian or Secular Fantasy sections in the book store."
Princess Una is a silly, romantic sort of girl. Flowery words and a dashing demeanor are what endear suitors to her. Unfortunately for her, her family, and her entire kingdom, attachments formed and promises given out of emotion and fantasy tend to lead to ruin.
Lucky or not, Princess Una does have one dull, but steadfast, suitor who proves time and again that her interests are of far more importance to him than her wealth, power, position, or beauty.
Heartless is Anne Elisabeth Stengl's debut novel. I confess that when I first requested this book for review, I very nearly didn't. The cover copy made the story sound slightly cheesy, and Bethany House is known more for historicals and romance than for Fantasy. But, there was something in the description that told me that there was something different about this novel. And I was right.
From the very beginning I was blown away by the quality of the writing. This was a debut novel? It's hard to believe, but yes, Stengl's first novel sits head and shoulders above many more experienced novelists. In a genre where top world building and writing skills are a requirement just to make it into the market, and where Christian Fantasy very noticeably takes the back seat in many cases, Heartless can easily play with the big boys in either the Christian or Secular Fantasy sections in the book store.
First, lets talk about what I liked about Heartless. Heartless is a fantasy that involves very little actual magic. Una, her brother, her father, and (most of) her suitors do not use magic, yet magic clearly infuses this world. Faeries are real, dragons are real, goblins and unicorns (of sorts) and shape shifting knights all exist---and this is a given. Some things, like the land of Farthestshore are considered by most to be mere legend, yet no one questions the existence of the dragon that is well known to have taken over a kingdom to the south. This is a very realistic kind of worldview---if I can't see it, it doesn't exist, and if I can see it then it clearly does.
The steadfast hero is capable of magic and uses it, but never in a flashy way, never blusters, and is in all ways more ordinary than actual ordinary people are. Una, who is a hopeless romantic and just a tad bit mopey, makes a few foolish decisions that are very natural to her character, and actually has to experience the consequences. The suitors are very human, and very flawed.
With the exception of the quality of the writing, my favorite part about this book is how unique the story is while still fitting perfectly into the Fantasy mold. While the back cover copy told me that Una foolishly gives her heart away to an unworthy suitor, I was surprised to find that it was a very literal description. Though there is no physical removal of her heart, when she gives her heart away, Una becomes quite literally "heartless".
Now, as for what I did not like about Heartless. As enthralled as I was with the story, and as well drawn as the characters were, I still didn't feel as though I completely got their motivation. Una has a very high school attitude toward life and love, and that seems natural enough as she's only just come of age. But the hero of the story, Aethelbald, comes out of nowhere, appears to be very stable if a bit dull, and then declares to Una that he loves her. While this is explained later in the book, it's a little frustrating as a reader to not be able to see his character growth. He remains very much the same throughout the story---not because he's not drawn out well, but simply because he's so stable and mature that there is no need for him to grow. At least, not at the pace of normal humans. However, though I find that slightly uncomfortable as a reader, I can't find any way that it could have been improved without totally destroying his character. It's a tough call, and I can see why Stengl wrote him this way. If he had been other than he is, he would not have been the hero that Una needed.
In the end, Prince Aethelbald
proves indeed and in deed that love is “an
ever fixed mark” pulling together an excellent novel and finishing
it satisfyingly though still leaving plenty of room for the rest of the
Tales of Goldstone Wood.
Lori Fox is a freelance writer who is working on her first novel as well as writing reviews for TitleTrakk.com. In addition to writing, she enjoys reading, making jewelry, and taking as many trips to Walt Disney World as possible with her wonderful husband Kyle. Visit her online at her website.