Thursday, May 08, 2014

"Cinder," by Marissa Meyer

The Protagonist: Linh Cinder. A cyborg mechanic forced to fix cars and robots to support the disdainful stepfamily that owns her.
Her Angst: On top of being part machine, she has a huge crush on the son of the Emperor. While his feelings may be mutual, will they remain so once he finds out she can't pass through any metal detectors at the airport?

Secondary Cast:

Prince Kai: The heir to the kingdom. Fights to preserve his commonwealth from the depredations of pestilence, famine, and psychotic evil queens from the moon.

Dr. Erlhard: A scientist who experiments on cyborgs to produce a cure for the plague that's tearing the planet apart - and he discovers that something about Cinder might just hold the key to the planet's stability.

Andri: Cinder's evil stepmother.

Pearl: Cinder's evil stepsister.

Peony: Cinder's rather nice stepsister, who falls ill with the plague.

Queen Levana: Psychotic evil queen from the moon. Uses her psychic powers to convince other people she's beautiful.

Angst Checklist:

  • "What do you expect, Mother? I'M HALF MACHINE!!!"
  • Moon Queens be crazy
  • I love him but we're from two different worlds
  • I love him but my stepmum stole my foot
  • Parental Expectations
  • Secret Royalty
  • The Needs of the Many Versus the Needs of the Few

The Word: Right after reading A Long Long Sleep, a sci-fi retelling of Sleeping Beauty that I appreciated more than I liked, I picked up Cinder - a sci-fi retelling of Cinderella that I did appreciate and like. Well, how about that!

It's not a flawless novel, to be sure, but it has a much more likeable protagonist, a truly original and interesting setting, and it incorporates the elements of the original fairytale in highly amusing and clever ways (the pumpkin!).

Cinder lives in New Beijing, the Imperial City of the new Asian Commonwealth in a futuristic time far removed from ours. She toils as a mechanic in order to support her stepsisters Pearl and Peony, as well as her vicious stepmother Andri. Andri hates Cinder because her husband got sick and died on the trip he made to adopt the orphaned girl, and also because Cinder is a cyborg: significant parts of her (a hand, a leg) were replaced with robotic parts when she was eleven.

Cinder's not too wild about being a cyborg either. Since the country they live in considers cyborgs little better than legal property, she risks imprisonment and death if she tries to escape her unpleasant living situation. The only bright spot in her life is Prince Kai, the earnest heir to the commonwealth who asks her to fix a tutor android carrying sensitive state information. This Prince Charming has his own problems - his father the Emperor is dying of the same plague that is cutting a swath through his country's population, and an avaricious foreign Queen is looking to conquer his weakened kingdom by any means necessary.

When Cinder's kind stepsister Peony comes down with the plague, an unhinged Andri blames Cinder and signs her up for medical experimentation against her will. When Cinder is dragged to the Imperial laboratories, however, she becomes involved in a complex conspiracy involving the Prince, the mysterious and incurable plague, and the sinister Queen of the Moon.

Cinder's freakin' awesome y'all. She's got a lot of reasons to angst, but she's incredibly capable and forward thinking. While she struggles with a fair bit of self-loathing over her cyborg parts, she never lets it sway her into believing she's deserving of the ill treatment she receives. She fights for herself and she's a problem solver. I also really love how her inner monologue incorporates her adjustment to being part machine without ever seeming unrealistic, cutesy-clever or "punny."

And Prince Kai is, well, a VNYM. A Very Nice Young Man. He's earnest and well-meaning and righteous and RULING A KINGDOM IS HARD Y'ALL and Evil Psychic Moon Queens be trippin', but he's also not terribly interesting. Which he shouldn't be, to be fair. It's Cinder's book. But, well - he's a nice guy and he works hard but he really never does anything remotely unpredictable.

But now we're starting to get into the book's flaws. There aren't too many - but one of the major ones is the romance between Kai and Cinder. I just don't buy it - and not because of the class differences. Because they don't actually spend that much time together. They always seem to see each other in passing, a few minutes at a time, and suddenly Kai is asking her to be his date for the Super Important Political Ball, and it never seems like anything but the most Random of Choices. Like asking your pizza delivery guy if he'd squire you to your sister's wedding.

I also had a problem with the villain of the novel (and likely the series) - Levana, the Queen of the Lunar Kingdom (the moon). The way the Lunar people were introduced set me up to actually feel for them. The Earthens distrust them because it's rumoured they have psychic powers and chop off people's feet and set people on fire and kill babies and all I heard was, "They live far away on a tiny rock in the sky and look and act different from us, therefore they are EEEEVIL." Perhaps this is just my own reading expectations, but I felt like I was being led to believe they were simply misunderstood thanks to prejudice and ignorance.

But, as we soon learn, Levana really is just that mind-controlling, baby-killing, foot-chopping-off, niece-immolating evil, and the Moon is North Korea in Space. Levana is depicted as so obviously, over-the-top evil that she clashes with the more well-drawn and complexly flawed characters in the novel. Even Andri the Evil Stepmother has nuance and depth and grief that make her a person and not a cartoon. I get that Levana is intended as the series' ultimate antagonist, and that she represents the amalgamation of every Evil Queen figure from Brothers Grimm central casting, but girl needs to tone it down a notch.

Otherwise, though, Cinder is a finely-paced, creative novel with a fantastic, unconventional setting and a cheeky loyalty to the source material.


  1. I think this review is pretty much note perfect. My feelings exactly.

  2. Emily Sorge3:03 AM

    My impression, from looking at the information on the other books (and from certain character revelations in Cinder), is that the Lunars generally aren't a bad bunch, despite being ruled by an Evil Moon Queen. Maybe the Earth people will learn a valuable lesson re: respecting other cultures and not judging a country's entire population by its oppressive dictator, although I'm prepared for the issue to go unaddressed. As for Levana, I didn't mind her character's lack of nuance. If you're in the business of dictatorship, even in real life, I feel like you kind of have to possess an Evil Moon Queen personality.

    My big problem (which I have not seen mentioned in any review and it's driving me crazy) is the depiction of anti-cyborg discrimination. The form that it takes in the novel just seems so nonsensical in so many different ways: economically, emotionally, socially, scientifically, you name it.

  3. AnimeJune11:17 AM

    Yup. Very excited to read the second and third books in the series!

  4. AnimeJune11:23 AM

    Agree to disagree on Levana. I'm not saying make her less evil - just, well, less CARTOONISHLY evil. But she is the Evil Fairytale Queen so it doesn't ruin the book - but the whole Lunar Queen thing bothered me for 3 reasons:

    1) I really don't get how you can psychically brainwash an entire population if the entire population IS ALSO PSYCHIC. That just fails for me on a sci-fi world building level.
    2) Also on a world building level - the moon is a fraction the size of Earth and very far away. In what universe would they be a viable military threat to the entire planet? By necessity they will have fewer people and likely less resources since a bunch of them will have to be used to keep the moon viable for human life.
    3) The Lunar Queen's behaviour kind of justifies the Lunar prejudice. I mean, when the ONLY visible representative of a planet is just unrepentantly crazy and evil, can you blame ignorant Earthens for thinking Lunars are all like that?

    I'm getting very thinky on this. But I still enjoyed the book.