Book Review: Cinder, by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Cinderella. With cyborgs. That’s probably the easiest way to describe this novel, but, like saying that Ender’s Game is about child soldiers, that would be a gross oversimplification. What Meyer has done here is taken elements of the traditional fairy tale and recast them in sci-fi context, augmented with what is becoming classic YA characterization.
Set in a future era well-removed from ours (the world has resolved into a handful of super-states), Cinder’s story takes place primarily in New Beijing, an interesting setting given the times. 25 years ago, amidst this country’s hype for all things Asian, the location might not have been worth mentioning. In today’s landscape, however, with most teen-targeted sci-fi stories being predominately set in a dystopian U.S., Cinder takes on a slightly nostalgic feel for readers of a certain age (ahem). I’ve seen comparisons made to Blade Runner which I don’t disagree with, but the similarities are probably incidental at best. At any rate, the setting has a strong, gritty feel to it which augments the created reality without overshadowing the characters. Meyer brings in just enough details to paint the scene and give me the sense that these events could not have taken place anywhere else. For me as a reader, that’s the hallmark of a good setting.
What really makes this book tick, however, are the characters. Meyer does a nice job of not simply retelling the Cinderella story, but rather cherry-picking elements of the tale which enhance the broader story she is trying to tell. There is a step-mother and a pair of step-sisters, but only two of the three play the traditional role. There is a fairy godmother figure, but he doesn’t give Cinder anything to speak of save a greater knowledge of herself. And there is a prince. More than the others, I think the prince exhibits the greatest shift to modern sensibilities. While he is charming, and his affection for Cinder is obvious early on, there is a wide social and political gap between them that he does not move to overcome. He does not chase her down the steps at the story’s climax because that trope would simply not suit the character or the story. Instead, Prince Kai gets caught in a storm of confused emotions and responsibilities. There is no grand sweeping gesture to find his one true princess; indeed, I’m not entirely convinced that he is in love with Cinder at the end.
As for Cinder herself, she represents another evolution in modern YA heroines. I think it safe to say that the better contemporary authors have well and truly abandoned the passive bystander model of Bella Swan. My biggest issue with Katniss Everdeen is that she allows events around her to push her into action. For all her hustle and bustle, it’s not really until the last book that she begins to act independently. Cinder, by contrast, is much more proactive. The book opens with an act of defiance (albeit clandestine) towards her stepmother. While she is impacted and influenced by changing dynamics in her world, she pushes forward with a plan to run away until she is forced to change trajectories. Even then, she is not swept up in events, buffeted along by the actions of others. There is an actual choice to be made, and although there wasn’t much doubt about with direction she would take, the alternative had enough plausibility to create tension. There was a story in that direction, maybe not as exciting, but a story nonetheless. Where the book fell flat for me was in my belief that Meyer didn’t push Cinder self-determination far enough. For all that I have lauded, she is still a YA stereotype: the slightly disaffected (but not sociopathic) teenager with something different/special about him/her to be discovered ; this discovery will change the world. Despite being a cyborg and a renowned mechanic, there were times when she seemed a little slow on the uptake. Part of this may be the author trying to draw out suspense, but it seems that she sacrificed some of her character’s integrity to do so. Perhaps those traces of the maudlin Ms. Swan haven’t been totally erased after all.
This is a good, solid sci-fi novel which will also appeal to those casting about for a new series beyond The Hunger Games and Divergent. It will give most readers plenty to ponder without becoming much more than a light, fun read. I am curious to see what Meyer does with her Lunar Chronicles moving forward, as the second book, Scarlet, does not appear to be a purely linear continuation.