Cinder by Marissa Meyer
Feiwel & Friends, January 3rd, 2012 (Science Fiction/Fairy Tale Retellings)
My rating: I’ll definitely go here again, even though there were a few problems with my reservation (3.5 stars)
Cinder is the most unique version of the Cinderella story that I have ever read. And it’s not just unique, it’s well-written, fast-paced, full of adventure and danger, as well as a very well-drawn heroine.
Cinder, a young cyborg living in the imperial city of New Beijing some time after the Fourth World War destroyed the earth, predictably lives with her uncaring stepmother and two stepsisters. New Beijing is the capital of the Eastern Commonwealth, one of a handful of continental nations whose union grew out of the devastation of the Fourth World War – supposedly, the people of Earth decided that greater governments and nations would be more peaceful. It is a city where androids have existed for centuries to serve humans. In opposition to the inhabitants of Earth is the powerful, cruel, and mysterious Lunar queen, who rules the people that live on the long-ago colonized Moon. Said to have powers that can control others’ emotions and thoughts, they are feared throughout the nations on Earth. For years, she has been pushing for an alliance with the emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth, who successfully resisted. But, the empire must deal with another enemy: the plague. When disaster strikes the palace, it is up to Prince Kai to protect his realm from the Lunar queen.
Cinder, in addition to living in drudgery, is also, as a cyborg, considered a second class citizen. In fact, she’s not even considered human, and her stepmother acts as her legal guardian. The story opens with The Ball – Cinder returns from her booth at the bazaar, where she just met Prince Kai, to a seamstress fitting her sisters with sparkly new dresses. I won’t describe the plot any further, because you are no doubt already familiar with it.
What I really love about this book is also what gives the story its new-penny shine. Although I put off reading this for a few months, because really, Cinderella and cyborgs? That turned out to the aspect that makes this retelling really work. It adds layers of complexity that don’t exist in the original. Take, for instance, Cinder’s cyborg body. She’s not just a poor relation – she’s no longer considered human, doesn’t have the same rights humans have, and is visibly different from everyone else – even other servants. Furthermore, throughout the book, Cinder not only defends her own humanity, disfigured, second-class citizen that people see, she defends her android friend Iko’s humanity as well. To Cinder, it doesn’t matter that Iko’s personality comes from a computer chip. The only place where this defense of diversity and inclusion falters is in the hospital, where Cinder shows no regard for the androids programmed to aid the dying. Which raises the question, what constitutes “humanity”? When does a being, mechanical or organic, become human, and worthy of human rights?**
Though the story breaks no new ground in terms of plot, the characters are still convincing and enjoyable to follow. Iko was definitely my favorite: giddy, enthusiastic, and funny, she brightened things up. As an android with a “mistake” personality, she supports Cinders’ struggles to bridge the prejudice held against mechanical and part-mechanical beings. She also gives Cinder room to laugh and play and tease, and provides readers with reasons to chuckle. Kai’s character also adds to the two-dimensional fairy-tale Prince Charming: he deals with loss, must grow up quickly in order to save his people, shoulders heavy responsibilities and learns hard lessons about duty.
I love that throughout, Cinder feels every wound and hurt inflicted on her by careless people, but still maintains a sense of self. She always believes in herself, despite what others say and do. Yes, she hides her foot and her hand, her retina display and other cyborg indicators. But she never lets others’ prejudice destroy her belief that she is human, and her confidence in what she can do.
My quibbles with this tale relate to the worldbuilding and the plot. The large-scale worldbuilding lacked conviction and felt artificial. Continental territories, united and working together against the colonized moon, which happens to have evolved people with superpowers, seemed somewhat arbitrary. Additionally, I didn’t entirely buy the explanation that these things developed in the wake of the Fourth World War. Regarding New Beijing and the Eastern Commonwealth, I kept wondering what nationalities made up the empire, and if there were a mix of peoples in the imperial city. Is it as diverse as I imagine it? Aside from the crowd scene, however, we rarely meet any other of the city’s denizens. Cinder hardly meets or talks to anyone but the most immediate secondary characters. While I’m on people, what does Kai look like? We never get a description of him, other than he’s really cute, and everyone is in love with him. The imperial city itself is left largely undescribed, except for the palace – which is done in a mix of new technology and old-fashioned design. I found the technology that permeated the city well-described, but very little of the culture received the same treatment.
The plot definitely had enough layers to keep me interested on many levels. The plague sub-plot was a superb addition. It challenges Prince Kai to be a true leader, not just a pretty prince, as he faces tough decisions between duty, loyalty, and love. It reinforces Cinder’s humanity, as she deals with the emotional consequences of disease. Cinder’s servitude is expected, of course – but when she gets drafted to help find a cure for the plague, both her heritage and the traditional plot expanded. Initially, I had dozens of questions and theories about how this fit into the traditional tale. However, before long the plot developments and twists became predictable and easy to spot.
Overall, I think Meyer asks some tough questions about acceptance, humanity, prejudice, and technology. I loved Cinder’s independent and self-reliant character, and the action carried me quickly through some sketchy worldbuilding. The second story is already in my hold queue.
**Has anyone else seen the new Battlestar Gallactica series?
For another unique take on the Cinderella tale, with a strong and independent heroine who solves her own pumpkin and dress problems and a prince who learns to be a leader, check out Mercedes Lackey‘s The Fairy Godmother, which is part of the fairy tale series The Five Hundred Kingdoms.
Even though this one has no relation to the Cinderella fairy tale, if you like retellings of folk and fairy tales, you might really enjoy Once Upon a Winter’s Night by Dennis L. McKiernan. It is a full-length fantasy novel that retells the tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” … which is one of my favorites. It begins a quartet of fantasy retellings revolving around the seasons.
Robin McKinley retells the story of Beauty and the Beast in Beauty. To be honest, I don’t remember much of it, just that I really enjoyed it.
Have you read any other futuristic retellings of fairy tales?