I was introduced to this book for the first time when I served as judge for the INSPY awards back in 2011. When it came in the mail with its image of wispy waif and description of finding true love, I admit I didn't expect much. This novel really taught me not to judge a book by its cover: I was pleasantly surprised to discover a world of wonder, beauty, joy, tragedy, and painful redemption that cut to the marrow.
Anne Elisabeth Stengl must have cut her teeth on the same copies of Grimm and Anderson I did. Her style comes across as both traditional and fresh, emulating and yet expanding the fairy tale genre. The closest approximation I can give for her style is Robin McKinley's "Beauty," or Juliet Marillier's "Daughter of the Forest" (also books I devoured as a child), but she also develops elements and concepts all on her own. Nothing about her fantastical settings felt borrowed; instead, she dusted off archetypes and blew new life into them, with a light enchanting prose that draws the reader in before challenging all assumptions and revealing not only the roses but the thorns of this world.
This world is fully realized, yet Stengl never weighed down the story with a long complicated history or geography. Places, people, and their magical properties were allowed to simply exist without any painstaking theories, explanations, or justifications. The traditional tropes were actually traditional rather than deconstructed, and thus surprising.
Best of all, portions of this particular story were left unexplained without a lapse in the overall meaning of the central plot. It's rare for any author to resist the urge to reveal all her cleverness. Stengl does so in the most beguiling way, keeping her focus solidly on the main plot while simultaneously dropping tantalizing hints at what might lie just beyond the map.
But it is Stengl's commitment to the very core of fairy tales that will surprise readers the most. Nothing in the first airy chapters hints at the grim sense of loss and despair that characters experience later, especially when it is a tragedy of their own making. Good intentions and romantic ideals are shown to be the very things that may put nobility at risk. The dragon's seductive hunger bore down on Princess Una with the same determined long game many of us feel oppressed by here in the real world. Even the virtuous are plagued by doubts, the right way isn't always clear, and there's an ever-present feeling malevolent fate that seems inescapable.
Don't confuse Heartless with grimdark or contemporary dark fantasy, though! There is light in this world, even when the shadows seek to devour it, and heroes still walk this land. They're just not obvious or in the form we expect. Allegory, metaphor, and novelty all weave together in a spell of remarkable meaning, offering an unfettered vision of what it truly means to lose our hearts and have them given back to us.
Wow, normally fantasy allegory is not a genre I enjoy. But Anne Elisabeth writes it with a twist like none other! I couldn't put it down.
The world of Goldstone wood is one of the most complex and layered storyworlds I have ever come across in fantasy. It is huge and ever-expanding with so much more depth, and history, and characters that you could believe. Every book in the series is better than the last!
Anne Elisabeth's writing style is unusual and reminiscent of older classic fairy tales. It is a bit hard to get used to at first, but hang in there! Because once you catch onto her unique and beautiful style it is one incredible ride and well worth the time.
One thing I've noticed is how many reviewers seem to hate Una. Maybe these folks just don't like her because she's a little too real. Yes, she's selfish, she's stubborn, she's a dreamer, always looking for something newer, brighter, more appealing. She's totally unsatisfied and missing out on the good and wonderful things (and people) that are right under her nose.
She's just like you and me.
Personally, I love Una. And I love how Anne Elisabeth breathes life into these beautiful, broken characters. Her characters may be far from perfect, and their endings may be too, but in the end, that is what makes their story so much more meaningful.
In this allegory, Una is a representation of the modern day church and it's faults. It is a story about How God pursues us relentlessly, calling us back to him, and to show that no matter how vile we can become God still loves us and is waiting to claim us as his.
About a young woman coming of age to marry, the consequences of her choices and the offer of redemption. I found the imagery brilliant, the flow of the story almost lyrical. I had a hard time putting the book down. I did find that throughout the book I wasn't as connected to the characters as I was to the story, its allegory and the style. The author's website says, the Tales of Goldstone Wood are a series of fantasy adventure novels told in the classic Fairy Tale style" which I think she did very well.