Book Review: Queen of Hearts: The Crown, by Colleen Oakes

Note: My copy of this book was provided for the purpose of review by the publisher.

I’ve always been fascinated by Alice in Wonderland, though I know that a good deal of controversy swirls around Lewis Carroll and what sort of relationship he had, exactly, with the young Alice. The book inspired by their relationship is a strange, magical, mystical thing, by moments whimsical and creepy, peculiar and delightful. It’s become a cornerstone of so many pop culture references in English-speaking countries that it’s hard to throw a stick without hitting a Mad Hatter, a Cheshire grin, a rabbit hole, or some other reference to something in the text.

Unsurprisingly, it’s also become the vehicle of scores of retellings. Some play around with Alice herself, others explore the real-world Alice and Carroll, others look at individual characters within the text of the book. Retellings have appeared on stage and screen as well as in books designed for adults and teens alike, with Queen of Hearts being one among them. This text, though, is rather interesting, as it takes on the story from an angle that’s new to me.

In the original text, the Queen of Hearts is a mercurial, imperious, terrifying figure who holds her entire court in a state of terror and keeps Alice in a state of constant tension. She’s a character whom we read, generally speaking, as evil, and also slightly off — it’s implied that there’s something wrong with her, something not quite all there about her, that the Queen of Hearts is, in a word, possibly, sightly mad.

She has a vicious temper, she plays croquet with flamingos, and, of course, she’s always shouting ‘Off with their heads!,’ which is rather her trademark line. In a children’s book, she’s one among many simplistic characters representing pretty basic archetypes. The Queen of Hearts is authority without compassion, power without moderation, an example of what happens when people are granted too much authority without anything to temper it — or any training in how to wield it responsibly and ethically.

Queen of Hearts, however, approaches the tale from a different perspective: that of the Queen of Hearts herself. We first meet her when she’s the Princess, struggling for recognition from a father who seems to despite her and a court that’s indifferent to her. She considers herself homely and uninteresting, criticising her figure (sigh, because of course fat ladies can’t be princesses) and her dark colouring, bitterly regretting that she’s not as gorgeous as her mother was. Meanwhile, her father can barely stand to look at her, and to her horror, he brings forth a newly-discovered half-sister, who becomes, in the eyes of the Princess, a direct competitor not just for the throne, but for any chance at a father’s love and the love of the people.

Characters like Cheshire and the Rabbit appear in this retelling as human beings, while the Mad Hatter is her own brother. Younger that her, he’s been consumed in the world of hats ever since their mother died, aided by two trusted palace employees who provide him with what he needs.

As the Princess starts to come of age, she realises that dark things are afoot in the palace, and that she may need to flee for her life instead of taking the throne as she thought she’d be doing at 18.

One of the things that makes this book so engaging is, in a way, how painful it is. The Princess only really seems to want one thing in life: approval from her father, who seems ill-inclined to grant it. As she struggles to achieve some kind of recognition, respect, and love, she learns that her father is really rather a brutal, terrible king…but at the same time, she seems to be absorbing some of his tendencies (perhaps laying the ground for the autocratic and frighting Queen Alice meets later). Even a love interest can’t seem to stop her from grasping for power in ways that are sometimes surprisingly ruthless and unpleasant.

Instead of being a grotesque figure, this Princess is really more someone to be pitied. She seeks love and understanding and never seems to find it, and that, it would seem, taints her and stalks her throughout her life. After years of being mocked, belittled, and criticised for not having the beauty and grace people expect of a royal, she’s become angry, defensive, and miserable, prone to lashing out in fury at the people around her. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Queen develops into such a troubled adult — it is exceedingly difficult to overcome the abuses of childhood, whether you’re a Queen or an ordinary civilian.

Not all of this book was perfectly engaging and on point, however. I was troubled by the characterisation of the Mad Hatter, who definitely represented some mental illness tropes that make me uncomfortable as a reader, such as the ‘crazy creative’ trope. He was also depicted as a character who couldn’t care for himself at all and required constant attention from providers who took care of every aspect of his life, a move which really deprived him of any autonomy or dignity. While I believe Oakes was going for a twist on the ‘Madwoman in the Attic’ trope (itself deeply troubling), I felt myself frustrated in many of the scenes with the Mad Hatter, and I was irritated that he was largely considered a disposable character to advance the storyline, rather than a human being in his own right.

In a world where whimsy, mystery, and creepy things collide, much more could have been done with his character to give him a defined role, a personality, and autonomy, just as Oakes has done for his sister, the Queen of Hearts.