Heartless showcases a world more complex than exists in many fairy-tale style novels. The Princess Una has come of age to accept suitors, but she’s not smitten with the first few who come to show their respect: Prince Aethelbald seems stodgy, and the Duke of Shippening is a doddering old man. But Una’s in love with being in love, and these men aren’t her idea of the perfect guy. Only the jester makes her smile.
What Una doesn’t know is that there is a huge plot underfoot to gain control of her father’s kingdom, Parumvir, and that she is being manipulated to make wrong choices. The story takes a distinct turn into left field midway through when the Dragon appears and tosses Una into a dark whirlwind she couldn’t have foreseen. Neither could the reader, honestly. In retrospect, there was foreshadowing, but I wasn’t prepared for the completely different feel unfolding in the second half of the book.
Besides the characters and the specific plot, the author has created an interesting world. Adjoining Parumvir are the Goldstone Woods. Una and her brother are forbidden from crossing the bridge to discover the strange things that go on in these woods, though Una’s pet cat, Monster, has come from there. Not only is he blind, but has no eyes at all, yet he seems attuned to the family and is just as agile and coordinated as any sighted cat. And oh the fun when the faerie folk cross the bridge and set up the Twelve-Year Market in Parumvir.
This is a novel in which the omniscient point-of-view worked for me most of the time. I believe any story would be strengthened by the use of specific viewpoint characters, but Stengl’s style ebbs and flows with the story and does it justice.
Though touted as a Young Adult Romantic Fantasy, Heartless doesn’t focus on the romance aspect as much as I expected. Instead it follows the choices someone might make and how those choices can bind them into slavery. Because the novel is loosely allegorical, the redemption aspect is somewhat predictable, but still within the story parameters Stengl has set. Heartless is the first book in the Tales of Goldstone Woods. I’m curious to see where Stengl will next take this series being as the story of Una seems complete. I’ll be onboard.
Here’s how it all begins:
“Do you think they will come before the year is out?” Princess Una asked her nurse.
“Who will come?” her nurse replied.
“Suitors, of course!”
Though the sun was bright, the air blew chill through the open window that spring morning, and Una wrapped a shawl around her shoulders as she sat waiting for Nurse to finish the awful business of preparing her for the day. Nurse, who had long since ceased to function as a real nurse and these days played the part of maid and busybody to her princess, wielded a brush with the tenderness of a gardener raking last year’s dead leaves, making every effort to tame Una’s honey-colored hair into an acceptable braid. One would have expected that, with many years’ practice, she might have acquired rather more gentleness. Not so Nurse.
She paused now, mid-tug, and scowled at Una’s reflection in the glass. “What brings on this fool talk?” She raised a bushy eyebrow and gave the braid an extra tug, as though to wrest all the unruliness out of it in one go. “You keep your mind busy with your lessons and deportment, just as always, and leave that messy business of courting and arranging marriages to your father, as is right.”
“But I’m of age!” Una winced again and tried not to pull away from the vicious brush. She twisted her mouth into an unattractive shape as pain shot through her scalp. “Papa always said that he wouldn’t accept a single inquiry from a single prince or single dignitary in a single realm of the whole Continent until I came of age.”
“As is right.”
Read the remainder of the first chapter here.
Anne Elisabeth Stengl makes her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she enjoys her profession as an art teacher, giving private lessons from her personal studio, and teaching group classes at the Apex Learning Center. She studied illustration at Grace College and English literature at Campbell University.
Heartless is her debut novel.