Heartless {by Anne Elisabeth Stengl} || review & discussion

I don't often post book reviews on this blog, but lately I read Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl.  It stirred up so many thoughts and feelings that I really wanted to share with you all.  I love discussing things with you, and I'd be especially interested to get your thoughts on this.  So, without further ado, here is my Goodreads review.  (I've added Aesthetically Pleasing Pictures from Pinterest, because why the heck not.)  Mild spoilers throughout.

⎼ ⎼ ⎼ ⎼ ⎼

First of all, I’ll say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.  It’s kind of like a very accessible high fantasy, which is a genre that has a big piece of my heart.  Most (most) of the writing was excellent.  There were several turns of phrase that made me all kinds of happy.

More superficially, there were also a few moments where I thought that the humor and/or the storytelling in general were too contrived and derivative.  Occasionally the narrative felt a little scattered and tangential, though that was rare.  Additionally, some of the names were just odd or even lazy, not uniquely fantastical.  (“Captain Catspaw”??)

My biggest problem with the book is the allegory.  Allegory is not necessarily my favorite in general, but I think it can be done really effectively.  The problem is, it’s a tactic that requires such precision in order to work.  As a general rule, allegories should push beneath the surface and find a new and subtle way to retell the original, while also maintaining the very delicate balance of authenticity.  Heartless has many explicitly allegorical elements, and in my personal opinion, they don’t all work terribly well.

¨`*•.¸ᴹᴬᵞ ᵀᴴᴱ ᴿᴬᴳᴱ ᴮᴱ ᵂᴵᵀᴴ ᵞᴼᵁ @ᴰᴬᵂᴺᴾᴬᵀᴿᴼᴸᴷᴬᵀ ¨`*•.

Here’s the situation: Una, our protagonist, is presented from the get-go as an impetuous ingenue who makes unwise decisions about the suitors who court her.  Aethelbald, the Prince of Farthestshore, is the “Christ figure,” here to save Una from her fate.  Aethelbald, who knows the impending danger that Una and her kingdom are facing at the hands of the Dragon, comes to warn them of it and to woo Una.  Una’s not very interested.  Undeterred, Aethelbald proposes to her the same day they meet.  Una refuses him.  You would think, “Well, duh,” right?  I mean, it would be the epitome of foolishness for a young princess to accept a man she literally just met a few hours ago, in strange circumstances to boot.  Right?  Right??

Apparently, according to the story, wrong.

The most responsible, mature, sensible decision Una makes in the whole story is billed as the most destructive.

[She then, perfectly innocently and naturally, falls in love with another prince, after a longer time. To serve the allegorical purpose, he of course proves unreliable.  (Though he’s not the villain of the piece.)  One thing leads to another and the Threatened Doom falls upon her/the kingdom.]

To me, that’s a problem.  It’s as though the author is trying to convince us that the only reason Una refused Aethelbald and fell for another is because Aethelbald is plain and “boring,” while this other man is “romantic” and “daring,” or whatever.  But really, what she should be doing is convincing us that Una should have accepted Aethelbald, because that is what was more implausible.

And this all happens within, like, the first eighth of the book.  So it was a problem all the way through.

I think that the goal here was to incorporate the scriptural message of God’s ways being different than ours, and his wisdom our folly.  But it just falls through, in my opinion, and part of that is due to the way the allegory is packaged.  As near as I can tell it, Una is supposed to represent us as sinners but also the Church as a corporate body, the bride of Christ which he will one day return to claim.  Aethelbald, again, is supposed to represent Christ.  The problem is that the story is still written as a very individual love story.  Since Aethelbald was so obviously supposed to be Jesus, and since Una was so obviously a singular character, it was just bizarre at times to see their romance unfolding.  It felt strange when Aethelbald literally physically kissed her on the lips.  I understand and appreciate seeing our relationship to God as that of a Lover and his beloved, as prompted by Scripture such as Song of Songs.  But I don’t think it works to apply that particular perspective of our faith to a fictional fantasy.  It becomes too confusing; it muddies what I believe are fairly important distinctions.  (Especially because Aethelbald also talks about losing other people he’s loved to the Dragon’s poison ⎼ and I’m like, okay, so, with all those other people, was it just a friendship or sibling love, and Una is the only one with whom he’s ever been romantically involved? Or has he been married a bunch of times before??)

Is any of this making sense?  I know it’s not terribly fair to compare this book to something written by Lewis, but I’m going to do it anyway.  Take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Its allegory is simultaneously clearer and subtler than that of Heartless.  A big part of that, I believe, is the way the Christ figure is written.  Aslan inspires awe and respect as a fictional representative of God completely organically; you don’t feel like it’s a task you must complete to "see him that way."  You simply do as soon as you see his shining golden form on the green grass of Narnia.  Lewis brought him to life so well that you don’t feel imposed upon.  It’s not like you know you’re expected to view him any which way and so you consciously try to do so; rather, he himself makes you view him as you should.  It’s a natural and somewhat involuntary process.  And, what I think is even more important, Aslan’s role in each character’s life stays consistent throughout the whole book (and subsequent series).  He is what he is: lord, savior, master.  That’s it, and that’s everything.  Simple and all-encompassing.  He’s not one thing to Frank the cabby and something else to Lucy.  He is the same.

Contrast that with Heartless.  The presentation of Aethelbald as the Jesus figure was so effortful, for lack of a better word.  He was winning as a character, but I didn’t feel unsolicited reverence for him.  I knew that I was supposed to “substitute” him for Jesus and myself for Una in my mind, so I did, but I resented it.  Plus, I couldn’t tell whether the author was trying to fully replicate a Jesus allegory through Aethelbald, or whether he was only supposed to be “mostly” the God figure. Because sometimes the language she used to describe him felt oddly imperfect, if it was meant to be the former. Several times she mentioned an “awkwardness” or uncertainty, which, to me, implies an idea of insufficiency that I found inappropriate for a Christ figure. Additionally, he was so many different things to so many different people.  To Fidel and Felix, Una’s father and brother, he was mentor, savior, guide, etc.; but to Una, he was also romantic love interest.  And it was just so spiritually confusing??


Essentially, that’s what kept me from wholeheartedly loving this novel.  The allegory somehow felt both too on-the-nose and too unclear, and because that allegory was supposed to be so integral to the story, it tainted the whole experience.  (Once again, though, I’ll reiterate that I really liked reading it.  I haven’t decided yet whether or not I’ll continue the series, but I won’t be surprised if I do.)

⎼ ⎼ ⎼ ⎼ ⎼

And now, as I said before, I'd really love to hear from y'all.  What do you think about all this?  I feel like it's been a while since we had a really deep, rousing discussion about spiritual things. 😛


  1. "Since Aethelbald was so obviously supposed to be Jesus, and since Una was so obviously a singular character, it was just bizarre at times to see their romance unfolding."


    Because this is my exact, gut reaction to "Heartless," literally every time anybody explains the plot to me, and that's why I've never read it and am never going to read it. I think it is VERY harmful and sends a VERY muddling, confusing, and possibly dangerous message, to write a literal, physical romance between a human girl and a guy who "is" Jesus but somehow "isn't" Jesus? A perfect, sinless spouse who's gonna save her from her sins, yet?

    Because, guess what, peeps:


    I know the author didn't intend anything bad with this, but it plays directly into the lie that I've encountered all too often in *ahem* conservative Christian circles--that men are strong, while women are weak; that men are Godly, while women are sinful and flawed and slaves to their passions. That women need to sit back and let men 'lead,' and let men do all their thinking for them. That women need to 'submit' to the perfect guy WHO WILL THEN SOMEHOW SOLVE ALL THEIR PROBLEMS. That's literally substituting your husband for Jesus!!! And your husband isn'tJesus!!! Your husband is a weak and sinful human just like you, who needs salvation just as much!!!

    So, yeah. I get that Jesus allegories are a thing; but making Jesus out to be somebody's human spouse is just. not. the. way. to. go. In my humble opinion. ;-)

    (Also . . . refusing a man you've just met that same day is a perfectly reasonable choice, my dude; and I'm uncomfortable with the whole "you should have implicitly trusted me with zero proof, right from the get-go!!!" attitude.)

    (To be fair, I am currently writing a story where a girl marries a guy the same day she met him; but that guy is a) clearly presented as an ordinary, flawed, imperfect character, and b) she literally has only two choices, legally speaking: marry the guy, or go back to an insane asylum that's basically a jail run by a sexual predator. So she's like, "okay, extreme measures, this fella seems decent, I'mma marry him." But she STILL takes a while to actually decide to trust him fully . . .)

    1. Ohhh, which story is this that you're referring to at the end of your comment? Have you mentioned it on your blog? I am very intrigued! 😊

    2. gahhhhhhhhhh you're so kind with all your encouragement. you're spoiling me, really *grins*

      It's called "Water Horse" and it's YA Western Fantasy, and I'm HOPEFULLY going to finish the draft this week or next!! And then I have to send it off to the agent who asked for it at Realm Makers . . . *is freaked* *but also stoked*

      I think I talked about it on my blog here:


    3. Yes yes, I thought maybe it was that one! Ahhh, really?!?! That is SO exciting!!! Congratulations!!!


      "I think it is VERY harmful and sends a VERY muddling, confusing, and possibly dangerous message, to write a literal, physical romance between a human girl and a guy who "is" Jesus but somehow "isn't" Jesus?" << That. That, exactly. The lines were just too blurred. It was so strange.

      Oh, wow, that's a good point -- I hadn't connected this issue with some of those "marital gender roles" you talked about, but I can see how that could be concerning, for sure. I guess I was too distracted by the oddness of the artistic choice that I hadn't thought about that possible side effect.

      "Making Jesus out to be somebody's human spouse is just. not. the. way. to. go." << Again, YES. It was so weird. Because, as you said, he representatively WAS Jesus, but he also WASN'T Jesus? And she WAS the Church, but she also WASN'T the Church?? Nope.

      That's the other thing that really bothered me, yes: insinuating that it was Una's blindness or "hidden sin" that prompted her to refuse Aethelbald. And I'm just over here like, "The heck?!?" Yes, the disciples were called to drop everything and follow Jesus instantly. But you're seriously trying to tell me that that wasn't in incredibly unique situation? You're trying to tell me that there wasn't unmistakable spiritual recognition, there? I just . . . *sigh* I don't know how to put into words how I feel about this, but, again -- yes. I agree with you.

      And eeeks, this is so fantastic!! Your writing is going to take the world by storm; I can't wait for it to break out. <3 <3 <3

    5. EXACTLY. That's turning prudence into "sin," saying she had no right to be wary, no right to hold back from rushing into a sexual relationship THE. VERY. SAME. DAY. she met this dude. Which is really where the allegory falls apart??? Because Jesus DOESN'T come into our houses and be like "now I am going to have a monogamous sexual relationship with you that will last for the rest of your earthly life." That's literally not what following Jesus IS. Hence, the massive difference between committing to Christ, and committing to marriage with a fellow human.

      Also . . . I would like to point out that, in my own personal experience, Jesus doesn't demand commitment the very first day we hear about Him. Jesus is patient. Jesus is willing to give us time, as much time as we need. Jesus accepts our questions and wrestles with our doubts. Which, again, doesn't sound like it was covered very well in this allegory?

      ACKKKKKKKK THANK YOU I sure hope so!!! *flails*

    6. YES. Yes, yes, yes. It just . . . on multiple levels, it didn't feel right. Multiple.

      EXACTLY. Jesus is patient. And, to be fair, Aethelbald was, too . . . but what bothered me was the implication that Una made a Very Bad, Wrong, Stupid choice to refuse this complete stranger.

    7. Also, have you listened to Taylor Swift's new release from the CATS soundtrack?? Because if you haven't, GET THEE TO THE YOUTUBES. (It's called "Beautiful Ghosts" and it's GORGEOUS.)


      :D :D :D

  2. I so appreciate this review!

    The idea of the Christ-figure also being Una's love interest seems very Unwise and Concerning to me; I feel like it promotes an incredibly unrealistic and damaging view of what our husband will be like, while also diminishing God's character, majesty, perfection, etc.

    *muses on this silently for several minutes*

    1. Thanks! Yes, it was just strange. I can't quite get my head around it. :-P

  3. Well, thank you. You've saved me from trying this book myself, because allegories and I are generally not pals. Like, I can deal with them in Narnia somewhat because I do like a lot of the characters AND it's super well done... but I will always prefer a non-allegory to an allegory. Trying to draw all those Connections and figure out all the Symbolism drives me kinda crazy.

    1. You're most welcome. I'm with you: typically, I'd prefer a story to not be an allegory. (I mean, Hinds Feet on High Places and Till We Have Faces are both at least semi-allegorical, and they're some of my favorite books, but they're exceptions.) In fact, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is probably my least favorite of the Chronicles, primarily because of the allegory. (But, like I said, even that book is fantastic.)


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