My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Length (e-book): 352 pages
Release date: 7 November 2017
Dinah has lost everyone she ever loved. Her brother was brutally murdered. The wicked man she believed was her father betrayed her. Her loyal subjects have been devastated by war. And the boy she gave her heart to broke it completely.
Now a dark queen has risen out of the ashes of her former life. Fury is blooming inside Dinah, poisoning her soul and twisting her mind. All she has left is Wonderland and her crown, and her obsession to fight for both. But the war rages on, and Dinah could inherit a bloodstained throne. Can a leader filled with love and rage ever be the ruler her kingdom needs? Or will her all-consuming wrath bring Wonderland to its knees?
This is not a story of happily ever after.
This is the story of the Queen of Hearts.
“Today was different. Today death was not an unknown figure whispering between the trees. Today she would challenge death to a duel, a game in which the odds lay against her in spades.”
War of the Cards isn’t a nice story. It’s brutal and violent, and simmers with rage both justified and cruel. It’s a compelling story that gets the ending mostly right, but the short length (352 pages in e-book format) is a double-edged blade: The good news is that there’s very little filler so the pace keeps momentum from start to finish. The bad news is that such brevity sacrifices deeper character development that could have pushed the characters to the next level and transformed the book from decent to great. As it is, we’re left with decent–plenty memorable for such a short read, but you get the impression that there’s a lot of unachieved potential.
This book, the final in a trilogy telling the origin story of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, can be looked at in two parts roughly divided down the 50% mark. The first half is an extended battle sequence which works well enough–the writing isn’t anything special, but suffices to convey the horror of the carnage inherent in war. The battle scenes and the march on Wonderland Palace that leads up to it are at their strongest when they show Dinah’s humanity as she learns to rule and make the hard choices. Sure, the argument can be made that she’s Cheshire’s puppet for most of the novel, but she does pick up as many valuable lessons making day-to-day decisions as you can show in a book of this length.
The plot twists of the second half are kind of clever but feel a bit arbitrary and predictable–considering how he behaves the entire novel, it’s hardly a surprise that the character revealed to be a villain is responsible for more nefarious deeds than previously known. That said, I did enjoy the plot twist regarding Vittiore, as well as the nod to Lewis Carroll that gets incorporated into the story.
The epilogue, well, is the most troubling part of it all. It’s intended to be bittersweet, and Oakes hits that nail on the head, but I still think it works out a little too well for Dinah. Personally, I just have a hard time swallowing how easily a certain character accepts her back after the terrible crime she committed to him. I suspect a lot of reviewers would be calling it out as problematic from a perspective of abuse if the genders were reversed.
As for Dinah herself, I’ve seen her slammed as annoying and entitled. To the contrary, I don’t find that a problem at all: she’s the goddamn Queen of Hearts, for goodness’s sake. If anything, it’s surprising that she’s not more capricious. In fact, she doesn’t even read as especially irrational, and I see a lot of similarities between her and the Lada Dracul of Now I Rise. They’re both devastatingly ambitious and passionate about championing the cause of the common people, but utterly merciless towards the unfortunate souls who get in their way. And, well, that’s when you get the Queen of Hearts that you know and love (to hate).
Finally, Colleen Oakes writes well. Her prose is elegant and evocative, and she writes some of the most beautiful descriptions of dresses and halls. Dinah’s coronation gown? It doesn’t get better than that. Of course, there’s also this semi-awkward redundancy:
“Dinah looked at herself in the gilded mirror, preparing for the coronation that would crown her queen.”
When that’s the worst written sentence of the whole novel, though, it certainly won’t be giving you headaches. I’d recommend War of the Cards for fans of retellings or antihero stories as a quick, entertaining read in between heavier material.
*Thanks to HarperCollins UK and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*