[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]
Hm. I liked the premise (telling the story of the Queen of Hearts before Alice came to Wonderland), however there were parts when I was a little... bored?
Catherine Pinkerton, daughter of a Marchess, loves nothing more than to bake, and dreams of opening a bakery with her maid and best friend Mary Ann, rather than just marrying some rich nobility son that she won't even love. Of course, her plans get thwarted when she catches the attention of the King... or are they? When the new Court's joker waltzes into the play, things change again, and this time, Cath may have a chance at true love. Except... We all know how the Queen of Hearts behaves in Carroll's story, so we also know that whatever Fate has in store for those characters, it's not a happy ending.
It's not so easy to write a (re)telling of something whose end is already well-known, and while it was problematic, some aspects I really liked. The beginning had a certain vibrancy, what's with the cake/bakery imagery and Catherine's dreams, not to mention Jest's first appearance during the ball, and the darker parts, including the meeting with the three sisters, were creepy in their own ways.
The main problem I had with this novel were its characters, and I think that had a lot to do with how I knew (or at least suspected) it would end. This time, it's not even a case of insta-love—Cath's and Jest's relationship progresses quickly, but frankly, I've also seen much, much worse in that regard—more a case of characters trying to let their own personality develop and shine through, only to be put back on rails in order for the story to end up where it should. I found this too bad for them, to be honest; I suspect they would've been more interesting had they been able to live their own tale fully. As a result, Catherine especially ended up rather passive and unappealing, stuck between a sort of Regency-like society where noble girls marry noble men and must remain silent and pretty in their corsets, a holier-than-thou attitude (ironically mirroring Margaret's without never realising it), and twists meant to turn her into the Queen of Hearts, yet too predictable to really hit home. The courtship period was infuriating, what's with all her refusing the King but never telling it to his face, letting things happen, then worrying that she'll have to marry him and not be with the man she actually loves, but still not doing anything, until it was too late and whatever she'd do would just end up badly (also it's the others' fault, never hers... great).
Other problems were the writing (not bad, but nothing exceptional either), and the pacing: especially in the second third, the story dragged and felt padded out—that was when I started struggling to keep on reading, before getting to the last/darker part. While the kingdom of Hearts had a 'cutesy' and colourful side that I quite liked, it didn't enthrall me (Chess with its warring Queens seemed more exciting?), perhaps because half the book at least was devoted to parties and balls and a more traditional "arranged marriage" plot, instead of playing on a more Wonderland-like atmosphere.
Conclusion: Well, I expected more, and this is clearly a case of a story whose characters would have been better left to their own devices.