Note that this review may contain major spoilers for the book.
Cinder is a cyborg mechanic living in New Beijing under the tutelage of her stepmother Adri and her two stepsisters Pearl and Peony. While her main concerns are to work to provide for her family and survive in a place where people hate and fear cyborgs, she finds herself taken from her little mundane life into a roller-coaster of political intrigue, life or death situations and the power to change her world.
The book’s premise seems to be taken right out of a sci-fi magazine, with a futuristic approach to an otherwise conventional story, and a dystopian touch. The idea for this novel is very interesting and unique. Its execution, however… Well, it left something to be desired.
Sometimes, the narration lacked fire, ambition. It was too docile for the situation at hand and thus, unable to transmit the right amount of raw emotion. It was safe and relied a little too much on its fairy tale inspirations to bring certain issues to light. All the times when the plot demanded a little more from the characters involved, they simply fell short of adequate. The climaxes were no climaxes at all, and big reveals were lost amid the rushing of the plot and too much happening at once.
All the clues were there, all the hints supplied by either other characters or Cinder’s own conclusions. Even the major plot twists were, in fact, predictable from the beginning. Some less important ones were nicely constructed and I hadn’t counted on them at all, yet they mattered too little to the plot to have any major effect.
At first, Cinder is presented as the classical YA protagonist: awkward, too plain and uninteresting for guys to feel attraction towards her, with mousy hair, “shaped like a boy”, no make-up and her choice of clothes is, of course, cargo pants and a t-shirt smeared with oil stains. On top of that, she is also a cyborg, which is considered a second-class citizen in New Beijing (more on that later) and thus undesirable to have around. Her neighbours are either scared or disgusted by her, her family is embarrassed of her, and her only friends are a domestic android named Iko and her younger stepsister Peony.
She’s the sort of heroine that attempts to be likeable and relatable, forsaking a true groundbreaking personality and features. At times you can glimpse a strong willed persona, undeterred ambitions and a strict moral code. But they never completely take over her in an extraordinary, game changing way. Not even when everything depended on her was she able to make a cohesive decision. Granted, she wasn’t given the proper time for it, either.
Fortunately, she does develop nicely throughout the novel and I did enjoy some of her most iconic moments in which she showed true bravery, coupled with credible kindness, and even specks of humor. Her character showed to have a few more layers than expected, being brutal and reckless when needed be while still remaining innocent and naïve. An interesting balance that I think Meyer was able to accomplish, but not master.
All the other characters – even Kai – were skimmed, at best. And that’s upsetting because there were some really nice foundations to work with. Iko was lovely and incited such sympathy, but her ill-punctuated humor attempts were simply overdone and didn’t bring anything new to the story. Peony was not only the sweet-tempered younger sister who got along with Cinder, but also an annoying, childish and vain teenager that often tried the reader’s patience – again, a duality that seemed forced and conflicted. And because she was often absent from the narrative, this didn’t get sufficiently explored.
Now, let’s talk about the “villains”. Adri and Pearl were simply not nasty or despicable enough. Yes, they were unpleasant sometimes, and the way they treated Cinder did anger me, but they were never truly evil. Adri was emotionally unstable, which could be attributed to the loss of her husband and the stress experienced due to money and precariousness issues, and her daughter was a whiny, self-centred, jealous teenage girl with no regard for anyone but herself. But most of their actions were never based on true malicious intent.
Queen Levana is also extremely weak when it comes to being an evil galactic dictator. She is too overly concerned about her appearance to care about anything else, and her insecurities make her too vulnerable to be considered a real threat. She has the power and the means to invade the entire Commonwealth and destroy it. Yet, despite countless opportunities to harm the nation and its citizens, she keeps holding back for no apparent reason. We are told she is a murderer and a totalitarian, but we are never given any physical accounts of that. Only towards the end do we see some actual diabolical deeds and even then, nothing is really altered.
I did appreciate the times when she displayed some wickedness, even though it seemed forced and clichéd. I just wished there had been more.
The romance was cute, with many adorable interactions here and there, but it held no substance. What were the motivations for these two characters to like each other? What traits did they have that seemed to illicit any sort of attraction other than physical? To me, the relationship between them really did resonate with Cinderella’s original one: instant and completely nonsensical. It was their idea of each other that seemed to fuel any type of feelings and not reality itself.
There were certain aspects of the book which did not make much sense to me. For instance, the cyborg hatred. For all we know, cyborgs are just people who were given a second chance at life after some horrible accident. Which, to me, should incite encouragement and support from others, not the opposite. I just didn’t understand why everyone acted like they all carried letumosis or something.
Some passages suggested this hatred stemmed from the fact that cyborgs are part machine, and machines are distrusted. But androids are a part of daily life (at least in the Commonwealth), carrying errands and making everyone’s lives easier, and you don’t see anyone but the Lunars having negative reactions towards them. I just think it would have been nice of Meyer to explore the whole man versus machine, as well as the robots trope, which make up such a big chunk of the science fiction genre and could lead to so many possibilities.
Don’t get me wrong. This book is extremely entertaining. I enjoyed the narrative immensely, although it was extremely hard to get into it the first sixty pages or so. But as soon as it picked up pace and introduced us to new and exciting information, I was completely on board.
The pacing was fantastic. It rarely lost momentum. It just kept going and going and the words flowed so easily, so nicely, I was ten pages in before I noticed. Even when everything else felt short of amazing, I knew I was in for a pleasant journey. And that takes talent.
I thought the subtle parallels with the original Cinderella story were a cool addition, too. The stepfamily, the fear of Prince Kai finding out about her being a cyborg (poor in the original), the heartbreaking moment when Cinder’s personal belongings are destroyed by her evil family and her breakdown over it, how she attends the ball in a rush and has to leave before her time, the mechanical foot as an homage to the glass slipper… They were all expertly introduced without making too much of a fuss.
Several other works sin in the way that they are too similar to the originals to the point of being almost plagiarizing. But the author was able to create a compelling story of her own while retaining some of the traditional elements of the fairy tale.
Being a big Sailor Moon fan, you can also see some nods at the anime in Meyer’s work. The entire Lunar archetype is proof of that. Even the feel of this book pays tribute to Sailor Moon. Which begs the question as to whether some of these resemblances did belong anywhere else but in the eccentric Japanese series.
Speaking of Japanese, many different Asian cultural references are made in the novel, all intentionally jumbled together to illustrate how the Eastern Commonwealth has evolved to an amalgamation of all the regions in the continent. The author made sure to include specific Chinese references, such as the placing of surnames before the character’s name and respective honorifics, but everything else hints at other late Asian countries too: koi fish, sweet and salty buns, crammed apartment buildings, kimonos, etc.
Still, the New Beijing setting could have been explored more. There were a few times where the city was vaguely described, as well as its people and daily habits. But they were still insufficient for a proper imagery. The politics were also barely scraped, but the pieces that did get mentioned made sense and provided an interesting base for the plot. Hopefully, more will be explored in later books.
In the meantime, check Meyer’s extra content on her website to get a better grasp on the world building.
The one thing that really got to me was how the novel ended in such a jaw-dropping cliffhanger, with not even a hint at what was to happen next. It was preposterously anticlimactic to leave the readers at such of point of no-return, despite there being a sequel.
Cinder was Meyer’s first attempt in the publishing world and I must say she took off in her career with a very interesting take on the sci-fi fairy tales’ world. She’s not the first to mix genres and create attention-grabbing storylines, but she’s definitely one who’s made a name for herself and acquired a strong fanbase with a single book series for a reason.
Much of my criticism comes from an objective and clinical point of view. On an emotional level, I thought Cinder was great and a really nice debut. It sparked some nostalgia and had that old time feeling to it (despite being set in the future) which few authors are able to reach. Maybe it was not the most original thing I’ve ever read, but it certainly left me feeling content and eager for more.
I enjoyed this retelling more than I thought I would. Despite its flaws and underdevelopment problems, it still manages to get to the reader on a personal level, providing good entertainment and establishing an incredible foundation for the sequels – which I heard are much, much better.
If you like fairy tales and science fiction, and are not too overly affected by potential technical or constructive blunders, then Cinder might be perfect for your reading repertoire. Hardcore science fiction fans will be disappointed at the lack of, well, actual sci-fi. It’s definitely aimed at a different, more casual crowd. Still, you’ll want to read it if you want to get into the rest of the Lunar Chronicles novels.
You can listen to an audio sample here.
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Tell me your thoughts on this book or, if you haven’t read it yet, whether this review has inspired you to try it. Happy reading!