Book Review: Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

03 June 2013

I'm a bit of a book snob. Some of you may know that already (I don't make an effort to veil it), but I think it needs stating all the same. When I'm choosing books to read, I rarely venture away from my little cocoon of classic literature. This isn't birthed from pure stubborness; I've tried to read modern literature on several occasions, and I generally come away unimpressed. As a rule, the writing tends to be poor, the subject matter cliche, and the plot and characters very predictable. I also shy away from new authors, no matter their genre. I feel comfortable in books that are at least a century old because I can trust them to be worth my time. Anne Elisabeth Stengl, however, defied every one of my firmly held ideas about newer authors, debut novels, and modern literature. (That shouldn't be a surprise, since she's more than well-read herself and draws her inspiration from classic fairy tales.) The minute I first caught glimpse of her books' beautiful, professional covers and read reviews that likened her allegories to Lewis, I knew I had to read them for myself.

And the rest, as the old turn of phrase goes, is history.

Heartless
By Anne Elisabeth Stengl
*Summary taken from the back of the book

Heartless (Tales of Goldstone  Wood #1)The Dragon King Seeks His Princess — Who Dares to Stop Him?

Princess Una of Parumvir has come of age and will soon marry. She dreams of a charming prince, but when her first suitor arrives, he's not what she'd hoped. Prince Aethelbald of mysterious Farthestshore has travelled a great distance to prove his love—and also to bring hushed warnings of danger. A dragon is rumored to be on the hunt and blazing a path of terror. 

Una, smitten instead with a more dashing prince, refuses Aethelbald's offer—and ignores his cautions with dire consequences. Soon the Dragon King himself is in Parumvir and Una, in giving her heart away unwisely, finds herself in his sights. Only those courageous enough to risk everything have a hope of fighting off this advancing evil.

My Thoughts: The backcover summary would have you think that Ms. Stengl's story is quite a simple and predictable one, entirely centered on one girl's romantic descisions. Such an opinion would be false. The further I delved into Heartless, the more layers I pealed back, and the more I realized that this book was something wholly different than what I had originally expected. The allegorical fantasy is rich with history and significance, and I particularly appreciated how the author would bring in allusions to pieces of ancient legends in Una's world when appropriate. The story would not have been nearly as satisfying without these references. They effectively served two purposes, since they added more color and depth to the story's setting and made me curious to learn more about the mysterious folklore only hinted at within the pages of Heartless. 

A few of the reviews I've read for this book have highlighted Una's failings, complaining that she is an annoying and shallow main character. While I can see why they would find her often selfish and foolish nature irritating, I think the readers who make claims such as these are missing one of Heartless' fundamental themes. It may have been more interesting, by modern standards, for the author to endow Una with strength and mental brilliance, but that would be a poor depiction of the sinful human condition. Una serves as a fictional representation of the Church. Like her, we in no way deserve forgiveness or salvation, nor can we ever work our way up to such a level. We are entirely dependent upon Christ's lavish grace and the gift of deliverance He freely gives. Heartless captured this eternal truth with both simplicity and depth, and for that reason I'm sure I'll be reading it again soon.

Pros: Anne Elisabeth's prose perfectly suits the subject matter. It's filled with dry humor and biting dialogue, and her description and world-building is simply breathtaking. Each of the characters is wholly dynamic, and I even found myself feeling pity for a few of the antagonists. The story progresses at a reasonable pace, the action is engaging without being extensively graphic, and the romance is sweet and pure.

And Sir Eanrin's in it. That affords little debate.

Cons: There is enough violence, though it's not excessively bloody, to keep this book from being appropriate for young children. The plot includes several battles and skirmishes with dragons, which sometimes lead to characters taking in dragon poison. On a more nit-picky level, the author doesn't give a very strong explanation for Una's instantaneous dislike of Prince Aethelbald, and her constant irritation with him seems somewhat ungrounded. The middle of the book dragged a little at times. None of these facts greatly affected my enjoyment of the story as a whole, however.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I recommend this book for ages 13+

A Bit O' Reading For the Day:
"If a man has to ask for your trust, it's a sure sign you should not give it. Trust should be earned inherently, without any verbal demands. Trust is knowing a man's character, knowing truth, and relying on that character and truth even when the odds seem against you." —Heartless, chapter 15

2 epistles:

  1. Heartless has to be one of my all time favorite fantasy novels. One of the things that I find most important in books is themes and analogies. This book had so many that I could have a field day writing papers (if I wanted to :).

    I have a love hate relationship with modern lit. There are definitely authors who really can write very well. There are some books and series that I see as lasting for as long as Dickens and Austen though not in the same genre.

    I love your review!
    ~Elizabeth

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  2. Thank you for the review, dear. I've been wanting to read this for awhile now, but somehow the cover hasn't really appealed to me {I know, I'm a literally-judge-a-book-by-its-cover-type-person [sometimes] *sheepish grin*}, but now I'm quite intrigued. much love | grace

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