Friday, July 24, 2015

Heartless, by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

This week I finished my first foray into the Tales of Goldstone Woods. I've heard nothing but praise for years, and when I finally laid my paws on a copy, I couldn't wait to get started.

The Book 
Princess Una of Parumvir looks forward to the day when her first suitor will come to Oriana Palace. In reality, it's not so glamorous as she expects. When the fairy prince Aethelbald of Farthestshore comes to ask for her hand, she can't get past his plain face and stern demeanor to the man underneath. He's the first in a long line of suitors; Prince Gervais, the Duke of Shippening, and more, some of whom capture her fancy and prove unworthy, some of whom never capture her fancy at all.

They come and go, but Prince Aethelbald remains, unwilling to accept her refusal. He warns of a coming danger to Parumvir, one that threatens the very heart of the Princess. But King Fidel is too incredulous, and Una too unwilling to accept.

And instead of giving her heart to a dashing prince, she finds it wrested from her by a horrifying force of evil.

My Thoughts
First of all, the covers are gorgeous. I know it's been said many times, and I'll join the chorus of sea unicorns (you'll get that when you read the book) and hum their praises. So beautiful. I wanted to read these books just by the covers alone. However, the beauty of the cover led me astray into expecting a different kind of book. Una was so beautiful and serene, that I didn't expect the darkness and ugliness she wrestled with throughout the course of the story.

First, the characters.

Una's character arc was excellent. She has a lot of maturing to do, and Stengl's ability to allow her to make natural choices, and strength of mind to give her the requisite consequences, takes a lot of courage. Monster was a dear. I loved him from his two poor blind eyes to the tip of his plumy tail. Refreshingly sensible, genuine, and cuddly. Actually, he was my favorite character, and the only one I liked all the way from the beginning to the end. Felix, too, I thought remarkably well-drawn for a fourteen year old boy, and I appreciated the testing and refining of his competition into a greater manliness. Jester was the most vividly drawn of the suitors, but all of them had different, vivid characteristics that set them apart.  Aethelbald was honorable, but I wouldn't have minded a little more dimension and character development on his part.

Fidel seemed really passive and weak for a king. In many instances Felix showed tons more spirit (if also more impetuosity) than he had. Even in the beginning, letting his daughter make such poor choices, he seemed uninvolved at best. I do understand that he breathed in the dragon poison, which affected him for the latter half of the book, but his spurts of bravery were ill-timed and far between. Nurse, also, felt like she didn't belong in this genre of story. She acted more like an English nursemaid clucking over normal little scamps than the nurse of a princess, and jarred me out of the world with her authoritative scolding.

Then, the plot.

I struggled with it, not because it was done poorly, but because it was so well done. The story is so true and biblical in its portrayal of darkness that I could only read a few chapters at a time, and then I felt like I was drowning in the darkness and had to put it down.What Una became as the fires of her heart were intensified, and what the Dragon was, are horrible. Sin is horrible. Our hearts are filthy, dirty, wicked, and Heartless does a great job of forcing the reader to acknowledge that in a very unobtrusive way. It was not an entertaining or a relaxing book. It was a challenging, grappling kind of story that I had to force myself to finish. I did let out an inner groan when I saw the dragon claw on book 2; I'm not sure how much more struggle of good and evil I can handle.

The truth of Gospel was so unflinchingly and truthfully portrayed, that in spite of my own difficulties, I want everyone to read it. The darkness showed just how dark our hearts can be. I liked that. I saw my own darkness through it. But it was hard. After the non-stop tension and despair of the last half, I desperately needed the ending Stengl chose to heal in the finish.  Even so, I think I'll space out the next book before I pick it up again.

All in all, Heartless contains classy writing, unconventional romance, and bold truth, three elements that make up successful Christian fiction. It deserves commendation, and I hope to feature more Goldstone Woods stories here on the blog in future!


  1. Ah! Yes! You've started reading them! I was excited when you mentioned having them on the "to-read" list in another post. This author is one of my all-time favorites, and I've been wanting to read your thoughts on the series. Be warned: each of the books gets better, grittier, and more beautifully complex from here. I've always loved how Mrs. Stengl doesn't shy away from hard, solid truths and characters that are painfully real (and perhaps a little too close to home). There deeper you get into Goldstone, the more wonderful it becomes.

    There's also a /lot/ more of Monster in the subsequent books. He happens to be a favorite.

    1. Kayla, apologies for my late reply. I was without my computer last week!

      I hear these get better and better as they go along,and I can't wait to find out why! So far I've been really impressed with Mrs. Stengl's writing advice, heart for her books, and publishing mindset. She is a winsome lady, and that alone would keep me reading. :) I have Shadow Hand and Moon Blood in my collection, so I can't wait to get started!

      And Monster. He is precious. ^_^

  2. Here I am at last! Oh, I really second Kayla's comment, Schuyler :). I am so glad you've started this series, and are interested to read more of her books, as Anne Elisabeth Stengl is one of those few modern Christians authors who I admire greatly for what she writes and what she inspires through her stories. She really has a great skill as a writer, and keeps growing in her art, improving and getting better, but also her books have a growing maturity and beautiful, gritty and honest depth, yet uprightness in regards to faith and sharing those truths of life and the Christian life through her stories within the realm of fairy-tale fantasy which is so fantastic and wonderful. She also writes such fun, wonderful characters like Monster. *smiles fondly* Oooh, "just you wait, Henry Higgens"! ;)

    On many levels, "Heartless" was my least favourite of "The Goldstone Wood series", but it is really one of those rare times when the rest of the series only improves greatly! What happened to Una was quite dark and gritty and I was rather filled with mixed emotions about her and what happened to her with the Dragon . . . just because it was so unpleasant. Yet, the allegory was very powerful too, and I appreciated that very much. (It was hard, at first, not to keep comparing "Heartless"'s allegory of redemption with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and thinking Lewis got it by far better - which was rather silly of me at the time!)

    I think my main real complaint with the allegory was based mostly on how un-fleshed out Prince Athelbald was. . . But I love how Stengl was able to really find her voice in her allegories/themes in subsequent books, and definitely "Heartless" was just the start.

    And yes, most of her books have left a deep impression on me, especially "Moonblood", "Dragonwitch" and "Shadow Hand". . . those three in particular challenged and encouraged me in certain areas of my life and walk with the Lord that was so healing and uplifting, I couldn't stop thinking about them for long afterwards. Goldstone is a wonderful and very rich and complex world that is truly special and becomes more so the more you read her books :D.

    Please continue to share with us your thoughts on the rest of the series as you read them, Schuyler!
    Many blessings,
    Joy :)) <3

    1. Joy, I too love joining with authors who I can watch grow. Those who share their journey, not only in their writing style, but on blog/FB, I always find most gripping. Perhaps it is because we always connect more with someone who wants companions along the way. :)

      That was my struggle with Heartless as well. So dark, and yet so allegorically powerful. I'm looking forward to what Stengl does in her later books. I have Moonblood and Shadow Hand, so I look forward to discovering your favorites!! It's special when books have a close place in your spiritual walk. And I will be sharing reviews with you all, Lord-willing!

      Much love, dear friend.

  3. So I read your review, probably on Thursday, and immediately got Heartless from the library (digitally). I finished it yesterday afternoon! It was really good, and I loved it. Thank you so much for recommending it! There were definitely a few things that I didn't understand, or where I wasn't sure how the allegory fit with the Bible, but I probably just need to read the rest of the series. If Heartless is your least favorite, Joy, then I can't wait to read the rest of them!

    1. Katherine, I'm so glad you read it and enjoyed it! I'm interested to try out our library's digital collections. That's something I've never done before. :) Thanks for commenting and letting me know you tried it! That always makes my day.

  4. Wow, I must say, these sound lovely. So beautiful and gut-wrenching. I'm glad you enjoyed them, and I can't wait to read them someday. ;) <3

    1. I think you will really enjoy them--they are just your cup of tea. :) <3


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