Tuesday, 25 October 2016

#BLOGTOBER DAY 25: 'Queen of Hearts' (Queens of Hearts saga #1) by Colleen Oakes

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*This review will contain spoilers!*
'It was said that once you sat in the king's throne, magic funneled down through the open hearts and made you wise. 
Looking at her father, she knew that wasn't true.'

"Oh, my future queen, you're late!" Harris hopped from one foot to the other, his plump face soaked with a cold sweat. He pulled off his thick-rimmed glasses and wiped them on his white checkered ascot. "Dinah! Walk faster, Your Highness! We are late, late, late!" He looked down at his pocket watch with an exaggerated sigh.
Dinah, Princess of Wonderland and future Queen of Hearts, rolled her eyes. 
"Harris, I'm walking as swiftly as I can."
Reading this opening exchange I was both confused and exasperated. Why does it sound like the White Rabbit is being described as a panicking human man? And why is the future Queen of Hearts acting like such a spoiled brat?

Dinah's in for a nasty surprise when her father admits that he cheated on her late mother, and that one night stand resulted in him fathering a child with a commoner. Within minutes she's meeting her half-sister, the brand new Duchess of Wonderland, Vittiore. 
Dinah's pissed off - how dare this bastard appear out of nowhere and become second in line to the throne? It's bad enough that her brother, Charles, was deemed unable to be king after dissolving into madness and spending all of his days creating hats. 
Dinah's father has never loved his children, so when he starts acting affection towards Vittiore it really hurts. But as soon as Dinah turns 18 she'll ascend to rule beside him as Queen of Wonderland, so she needs to be on best behaviour for the next few months. No more temper tantrums, no more childish complaining. 
Dinah hopes that she'll be able to marry Wardley Ghane when she becomes queen. She's been in love with him for as long as she can remember, as they were the only two children who grew up in the palace. He's a stablehand and he's in training to become the next Knave of Hearts, but she's certain that he'd be a brilliant king, ruling alongside her and making Wonderland a better place free from her father's selfish rule. 
But it's not long before strange things are happening in the palace, and Dinah starts wondering if there might be a plot afoot to keep her from ever sitting on the throne. Just how far will her father go to remain King of Wonderland?

Nothing happened.
Okay, I'm lying about that. A couple of things did, but they were either completely unexplained or unnecessary. This book doesn't make a lick of sense without the context of the series around it, so I guess I'm going to have to read the second book - 'Blood of Wonderland' - when it releases in February.
The story actually begins in the last fifty pages, which are rushed and incoherent. The first half of the book is pure set-up: Vittiore is Dinah's half-sister, Dinah isn't happy about this, her father's a bit of a dick. It shouldn't take over 200 pages for that information to be communicated.
But none of it makes sense. Why has Dinah's father hated her since birth? Why does he seem happy to share the throne with Vittiore and not Dinah? Why is the Cheshire cat called Cheshire, and how did he become the king's very human adviser? Why is the White Rabbit a human?
Where is the whimsy?
This would work much better if it was an original story of a girl whose father is trying to kill her to keep his crown. It doesn't need to be an Alice in Wonderland prequel, because it has none of the aspects that make Lewis Carroll's work so intriguing and unusual. The Ninth Sea is the only thing that comes close, and that's a sea of flowers that gently shift from dark blue to nearly lavender, making them appear to be a real ocean from a distance. That's the reason this book received a second star.
Then there's the Black Towers aka the most disturbing thing I've ever read in YA. There are seven tree-like towers that house criminals by crime, and when Dinah is covertly given the name of one of the prisoners she needs to visit her. Faina Baker is in the top of the tower that holds the criminals accused of treason, and when Dinah manages to sneak in to visit her she finds Faina secured to the tower by roots and vines. According to one of the guards, the roots "love an opening", and the description of the vines slithering across Faina's face and down her throat made me feel physically sick. Needless torture isn't great, but describing it in erotic terms is nausea-inducing.
Soon it's Execution Day and - in a completely unpredictable twist of events! - Faina is chosen as one of the criminals that will be beheaded. Faina - who babbled about a missing daughter to Dinah - gets her head chopped off, and Vittiore - the girl who appeared out of nowhere - faints. It's so obvious that Faina was Vittiore's mother, and even though it's completely plain to see it's still not being resolved until the next book. Groan.
At the end of the novel, Charles is murdered. So unless the folks of Wonderland learn how to revive people, it looks as though this version of Wonderland doesn't have a Mad Hatter! Dinah blames her father (I've got my eye on the super sneaky Cheshire) but she's framed and has to go on the run. But not before she tells Wardley she loves him, and he completely ignores her! She deserves that: she's just stabbed him and if she hangs around she could get them both killed, but she still thinks it's the perfect romantic moment to declare her love. I'm rolling my eyes so hard I'm surprised they aren't stuck in my head.
The book ends with Dinah about to journey into the Twisted Woods towards the Yurkie Mountains (home of an as-yet-unseen tribe of murderers), her father and the Card Guards on her tale and Wardley promising that he will find her.
There's so much potential with the characters and the story - the duplicious Cheshire, the unemotional Wardley, the mysterious Vittiore - but based off of how much of a non-starter this first installment was, I'm not sure I trust Colleen Oakes to be able to do any of their stories justice. Hopefully I'll be wrong, but I'm not getting my hopes up.

This is a reissuing of a series that Colleen Oakes wrote and released back in 2014, so the entire trilogy will be released by September of next year. I'm going to carry on with it, because I'm hoping that eventually some of the elements of Wonderland that I'm familiar with will seep through: maybe rather than just being a retelling of the beginning of the Queen of Hearts reign, it could also be an explanation as to how Wonderland became so weird and wonderful.
For a first installment, this is utterly disappointing. It would have been much better if this had been a prequel novella, trimmed down and released as an eBook only, to allowed the end of the novel to be properly developed and not left at such an inopportune moment.

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