Friday, 14 December 2012

Book Review: Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

Heartless, by Anne Elisabeth Stengl, has the honour of being my first book review on this blog.

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. --Image and description from

I happened to stumble across this author somewhere online while looking up books. Good books are hard to find nowadays (but that is a whole other post), so I was delighted when I found a Christian author who wrote fantasy in the vein of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Perhaps I have been living under a rock, but there is little of that beauty found in today's fantasy and young adult literature.

So, after perusing various reviews on other blogs and, I took advantage of the opportunity for downloading the book for free onto my computer. I meant to follow the author's read-a-long on her blog and just read a chapter a day, but I found myself entranced by the story and needing to find out what happened next. I'm ashamed--but of course, not too ashamed--to say that my studying for finals became a trifle neglected. (Never fear, I have no intention of failing any of my courses).

Even now, the story and characters are stuck in my head. While I was supposed to be studying for an exam this afternoon, I ended up doodling a scene from the book instead. That is the power of an amazing book: it never leaves you, but sinks deep into your skin and, if you're an artist, it tingles in your fingers.

This book did that to me. It sunk deep down and waits in my hands, characters urging me to splash them across the pages.

Despite the story being a fairy-tale and an allegory, the characters still have depth. The main character is stubborn and naive and dreadfully annoying, but I loved her. Don't we all experience that kind of love? A relative whose flaws seem so magnified we can barely stand them, but somehow we are drawn to them anyways. That's what it felt like between Una, the main character, and I. She made many mistakes and she was a silly little chit of a girl most of the time, but by the end of the story she has matured so much that some scenes left me aching for her.

Being a sister myself, I loved the banter between Una and her younger brother, Felix. They came alive on the page and left me laughing so many times. The author does a splendid job taking old archetypes and breathing new life into them. Felix, the naive young prince, also grows and also takes steps back in his growth like any real person would. I am very excited to see how he progresses through the series.

I could go on and on about the host of characters--a cat with no eyes who is more than he seems, a mysterious lady with the prettiest name I've ever heard... and, of course, the main redeemer-character, a prince named... Aethelbald. Yes, you read that right.

A prince named Aethelbald, who seems too perfect and too nice to stand. Like Una, there were parts where I couldn't stand him. And this shows Ms. Stengl's genius. It is all on purpose. Usually I detest stereotypes, but there is a difference between authors using them with intention and authors that use them without realizing. Ms. Stengl uses the character of Aethelbald, and even Una, as representatives of Christ and the Church. While this may discomfort some--and it did me for a bit, I admit--in the end, it does make sense. In the Bible, Christ and the Church are often described as Bridegroom and Bride.

So, instead of rejecting this book as "full of stereotypes" or "unfocussed", one should use the extra-textual references (haha! a reference to my Introduction to English Literature class!) to better understand its message. The Biblical references enhance the story into a tale of redeeming love that no mortal prince can offer you, whether or not you're a princess.

And isn't that the best thing of all--that it points to something beyond itself? It is not a selfish narrative, but one which urges the reader to expand their knowledge, limits, and understanding. 'There is a whole other world to be found between the lines of a book--and a whole other world to be found within the moments of our lives.

5 stars!