Cinder has grown up knowing she doesn’t belong- after all, cyborgs are second class citizens, even if clothing can mask most of the changes made to her as a child. In the markets of New Beijing, she does her best to simply be a good mechanic and keep her head down, preferably avoiding her step-mother’s wrath. But then- a prince. And a secret. And a plague. And a lunar queen with cruelty and the power of bio-electrical manipulation. Buckle up, boys and girls; there’s no fairy godmother on this wild ride.
Anyone who’s been with the blog a while knows I have a thing for fairy tales. Like a Really Big THING. I adore fairy tales, and I absolutely love clever retellings of them, versions that keep faith to the original (or as original as we can find, anyway) stories but still manage to make them completely their own.
Friends, we have here a very worthy addition to the tanks of retellings I love.
The typical elements are all there- the handsome prince, the step-mother and pair of step-sisters, the slaving for the step-family, the ball, even the pumpkin coach and the glass slipper in their own way. All the things that tie this firmly to the story of Cinderella are here- but they’re set into a fantastic futuristic world with a lot more going on than who gets to dance with the prince at the ball. The story is woven through a much bigger picture, while never losing a firm grip on the retelling. What’s more, it stays true to Cinderella while still adding in threads from other stories, such as the Snow Queen and Anastasia (yes, I know Anastasia isn’t technically a fairy tale, but the way we treat it, it might as well be, really).
When it comes to foreshadowing, it’s about as subtle as a brick to the face, but let’s be honest: no one reads a fairy tale retelling to find out what happens, but rather how. When it comes to Cinderella, no one is going to be shocked that she gets to the ball and dances with the handsome prince. It’s how she gets there- her version of the pumpkin coach- that’s awesome. As readers familiar with this foundation and the others, we know what’s going to happen long before Cinder and the others do. It’s not that we’re particularly surprised at any point. Instead, we get to be impressed.
The setting of this story is fantastic. It takes place after World War IV has completely changed the structure of nations, and New Beijing is the capital of the Empire of the Commonwealth. It’s a brilliant meld of traditions- like rice paint and kimonos, the tiered pagodas, the surname first- and new tech, like tracking chips and highly advanced tablets and androids. And, of course, cyborgs.
The cyborgs were both a great point and a sticking point for me. I love that the main character is one in a world where being a cyborg means being a second class citizen. I love that she struggles with it, with trying to keep herself in order and appear totally human. What I do wish is that we’d come across other cyborgs. Cinder is the only one we meet, so it’s hard to feel sympathetic for the large number being treated as test subjects and throwaways or forced labor, hard to sympathize for the experimental draft, when we never see the effect these things have on other cyborgs. There is no cyborg community, no sense of greater belonging. Part of that makes sense, given the other threads through the story, but it also left a bit of a disconnect.
This is a busy story. There are a lot of separate threads coming together and at some points it actually feels a little too busy, as threads are either rushed to completion or never fully developed.
I love Linh Cinder as a character. She’s pragmatic and a little cynical, but not bitter yet. She works hard, is good at what she does, and looks for a way to get out or to at least make things a little better. She’s aware of the slights but also of the kindnesses, even if she doesn’t always recognize the impulse behind them. Her pragmatism, her way of looking for solutions, is wonderful and fits in very neatly with her trade as a mechanic. Does building and fixing things require a certain amount of imagination? Absolutely. But it also requires logic and determination and level-headedness to actually get things done, and we see that through most of the story. Her personality is a good blend of her various parts and the way she interacts with other.
I love how patently oblivious she is to Kai’s intentions through a large part of the book. Not that she doesn’t realize what he’s doing, just that she doesn’t realize he’s serious, or at least sincere, doesn’t recognize that for him, she is one blinding piece of normalcy in a world gone mad. She, of course, is too pragmatic to fall head over circuits in infatuation with him just because he’s a prince. We get to delight in the sense of fun in his pursuit- he’s determined but polite, never pushing too far but never letting it go either, and every now and then we get a glimpse of the sincerity beneath the fun. Kai is a young man in a very difficult position, one he’s not entirely prepared for, and Cinder’s pragmatism balances his occasionally high-strung, knee-jerk reactions. He’s thinks fast and acts fast, not always to the most beneficial result, but his instincts are good and his intentions for the best.
Doctor Erland is an interesting character. Hard to say you like him, really, given his particular brand of ruthlessness or even coldenss at times, and yet he’s got this deep well of sincerity and even sympathy that still makes him very appealing. You still care about what happens to him, even outside of his obvious significance to the story, but at the end of things, even when you care, it’s still hard to say you like him. I LOVE THAT. I love the ambiguous characters that reflect all the grey areas of the human existence and the fact that a person can be flawed (maybe even mildly sociopathic) and still draw on reader’s sympathies, and I thought he was very, very well done.
And Iko- what a gem! Iko is an amazing, silly, heart-warming, hopeful character. I love Iko and very much look forward to seeing where her story continues.
The plague is a constant, real force that shapes the story, perhaps even more so than the threat of war with the lunar queen. Mixing magic (sorry, bio-electrical manipulation) in with everything sometimes came across as flat, and the queen was perhaps too mercurial, and too purposefully two-dimensional, to come across as a true danger. We know she’s a danger but she never really feels like one, never gives us half the frisson of fear that the plague does. We see the fear that stalks through the city, the instant panic at the signs of it, the debilitating effect it can have on families, and the complete lack of hope that becomes a despair that somehow drives a continued search for the cure. They don’t hope but they still search, perhaps out of a bleak, grim incapability of simply letting it go.
Absolute favorite part of the book? Cinder showing up at the ball. Not going to say why, because really getting there is half the fun, but her actual appearance walking into the ball made my day.
And the good news? There’ll be more! Cinder’s story isn’t done yet, as this is just book one of the Lunar Chronicles. Book Two, Scarlet, will be forthcoming (date unknown).
Until next time~