So this one's a bit unusual. I was hoping to participate in the CSFF Blog Tour for Anne Elisabeth Stengl's Starflower, but a glitch kept me from getting a copy. I did read Heartless (free on Kindle) and Rebecca Luella Miller generously gave me a copy of Starflower to review, so it is on my list. (If you want to read about Starflower, though, head over to the CSFF blog tour!)
Heartless (Tales of Goldstone Wood Book #1) by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
Ridiculously simplified summary: In this highly allegorical tale, Princess Una has many suitors, but dismisses the Faerie Prince Aethelbald as dull. She'd rather be swept off her feet by someone more interesting and charming. When she ignores the prince's urgent warnings, her kingdom is torn apart by a dragon...
Content: The violence didn't upset me, and no sexual content that I recall (just some light romance).
I can't see how to review this book without taking the heavy Christian content into the review itself. The whole story is very clearly allegorical, with Aethelbald loving the unlovable princess, willing to sacrifice himself for her, etc. To me, a good allegory should stand on its own--that is, the character's actions should make sense even if you don't know the source material. Here, I thought the allegory overpowered the characters' story, rendering the two main characters rather lifeless.
Compelling: 6 out of 10. While Felix seemed interesting, I got rather bored with all of Una's courting. Approximately midway through the book, the story got much more interesting. I started getting lost in the end, but I find that to be the case for me with many fantasy (and other) books.
Characters: 4 out of 10. Some characters were fairly charming (like Felix--although this deleted scene from a later book made me dislike him). Some characters were at least interesting and entertaining, if not entirely sympathetic (like Leonard). Monster the cat was adorable.
I realize that allegorically, Una was supposed to be unlikable, but it was hard for me to read about a foolish, selfish character. She finally got some spirit about midway through the book and I started to like her more, but I felt like she was lifeless at the end, almost slavishly devoted, but without the passion I'm used to seeing in romance novels.
At first I really liked Aethelbald. Una derided him as "boring," despite the fact that is the Prince of the fairies, and came with a whole group of magical people at the beginning of the book. Instinctively, I rankled against her assessment of him, and decided he wasn't boring at all, particularly given the patience he had with Felix (in short, the unfortunately-named Aethelbald was cool). Note to authors, if you want me to like a character, tell me how bad they are. But as the book progressed, I started to see why Una found him boring! His initial passion toward Una, abruptly asking for her hand in marriage, was endearing, but I feel like that passion dwindled toward the end.
I don't know for certain if the other books in the series address some of the other characters brought up in this book, but for me, some of the more interesting characters' storylines just fade away.
Writing/editing: 8 out of 10. There are some fun turns of phrases here, such as:
With that, she turned on her heel and marched down the corridor, the blind cat trotting behind, unlike a dog in every way because, of course, he wasn't truly following her. He merely happened to be going her way.The free Kindle edition had some obnoxious formatting issues on my Kindle Keyboard. Probably at least once a chapter, two words either run together, or appear to run together, which got distracting. Advancing to the next page, then going back, seems to fix it in some cases, though I believe there are a few instances where the words are run together, and one spot that's unreadable. (Not helping is the fact that when she's extremely flustered, Una speaks in nonsense! Which got funnier later, but I read it as a ridiculously grievous typo at first.)
It appears the publisher forced the book to be a certain font, so that could have something to do with the actual glitches.
I'm assuming the later books don't have this trait, but at least a couple bits come straight from Narnia. (Though I'm glad she's evidently read those books!) The main borrowing is a major plot point, but there is another point where Aethelbald is leading some doubters and they think he's disappeared over the edge of a gorge, but are commanded to follow, only to find that he's in fact on a path. To me that felt more like lifting directly from Aslan in Prince Caspian, more than an homage.
Plausibility/believability: 2 out of 5. I feel like I didn't get as rich a sense of Stengl's world as she has in her head. I believe this is a debut novel, with many more set in the same world, so that may very well be fixed in later books. To me, I felt like the allegory made the character motivations a bit more strained--I figured they were acting that way because that's how Jesus/the church act in the Bible. (Except I think Jesus generally demonstrates a lot more passion, instead of being meek to the point of moping.)
Positive: 2 out of 5. There's just a whole lot of destruction later in this book. But what upset me most was the repercussions of the allegory. I couldn't ignore the idea that Aethelbald was the Christ figure, yet he loves and is hoping to marry just one of his followers, even though he asks others to follow him. That would give the follower he marries a closeness that no other follower could hope to possibly attain. In fact, Aethelbald seems to divide his time between two realms, but from what we see, he doesn't seem too upset if the rest of the human world burns, so long as he can save Una and her family. Is that the point? And is it true that Jesus doesn't care so much what happens to anyone but a small group?
In fairness, as an allegory it does show that while we were yet sinners, Christ loved us. I just would've preferred if the allegory were less pronounced.
Gut reaction: 1 out of 5.
Bonus points: 5 out of 5.
Recommended for: Fans of fantasy and Christian allegory; people who value plot over characterization.
Total Rating: 2.8 out of 5 stars
*I downloaded this book free on Amazon.