Monday, February 20, 2012

Review: CINDER by Marissa Meyer

Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Feiwel & Friends
Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . 

Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.
Confession: I am a huuuuuge fan of fairy tale retellings. The idea of taking such a well-known, beloved tale and keeping its heart and frame while reframing the story in a way that makes the readers rethink what they previously knew... Mmmm, shivers of delight. I particularly like retellings told from another (preferably minor) character's perspective, but I was eager to give Cinder a try anyways. I mean, look at that cover. Just LOOK at it!

Enough sighing over prettiness. I've read several Cinderella retellings (and watched different movies), but this is my first futuristic-with-a-cyborg-protagonist retelling. I like Cinder. She avoids the sickly sweet Cinderella stereotype that some retellings use (see: Brandy singing "I'm as mild and as meek as a mouse; when I hear a command, I obey."), but she also avoids devolving into snarling, swaggering bitterness. She's cynical but not close-minded, practical but not (too) pessimistic. Actually, if I had to compare her to another Cinderella off the top of my head, I would pick Drew Berrymore from Ever After. Sometimes, she buckles under when I wanted her to snarl back, but she also has impressive fits of defiance.

As a cyborg, Cinder is relegated to property, and as such is treated with suspicion and disdain, so there's a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Really, though only having a chip on her shoulder is pretty good, seeing as cyborgs are not only treated as property, but also used as guinea pigs in the search for a cure for a deadly plague ravaging the country. [Aside: Why does there always seem to be some mysterious plague in these kinds of books? Not that I object; I always found the Black Plague fascinating. That and the word "plague" is fun to say phonetically.] Cinder becomes one of those guinea pigs when her "step-sister" (we'll get to those air quotes in a moment) falls ill, and her step-mother volunteers her for the experiments in a fit of spite.

The plague is only one of several lines that Meyer uses to keep the plot tense and moving. There's a deadly plague and a dying step-sister; a venomous, mind-controlling Lunar queen; espionage and intrigue in the form of an Anastasia-like supposedly dead heir; oh, and a super-cute prince who brings his droid to Cinder's shop for a repair and doesn't know that she's a cyborg. Yikes!

As you can see, Meyer likes to keep her readers busy. The problem with Cinder being the introductory story in a planned series is that, naturally, many ends are kept loose and dangling by the conclusion of the book. Necessary, but annoying. Still, in general, she doesn't do a bad job at keeping all the balls in the air.

As for the characters, in a reversal of my previous reviews, I found myself far more fascinated by the female protagonist than in the prince or any of the other supporting characters. The prince himself was okay. Kai is the typical good-guy Prince Charming we're accustomed to (see: Prince Char in Ella Enchanted), though Meyer did have me on pins and needles a few times because of his good-guyness. After all, sometimes honorable "for the good of the kingdom" good takes a different path from smart-good, and Kai is utterly devoted to his people.

What I liked about Cinder's step-family is that they weren't, not really. Her step-father had found her in Europe and adopted her but then expired from the plague soon after. Get that? Step-father, not real father. Cinder starts as a total orphan, is adopted by a man of mysterious intentions, and then is shoved onto a "step-mother" who uses her to earn money. And the step-mother is the typical, witchy pain in the rear. She has her reasons, of course, but pain in the rear nonetheless. As for the step-sisters, they followed a pattern I've noticed becoming popular in fairy tale retellings. Rather than both being carbon copies of their witchy mother, at least one (as in this story) or sometimes both (as in Robin McKinley's Beauty) are genuinely nice people who adore the protagonist. The nice one in this story is Peony, the one that falls sick with the plague. The other, Pearl, stays a one-dimensional brat. If I could have requested anything of Meyer, I would have asked if 1) she would mind ditching Pearl entirely, or 2) she could have made Peony a brat as well but have Cinder love her anyways. I mean, desperately searching for a cure for someone who loves you is one thing, but desperately searching on behalf of someone you love but who doesn't love you back? That's gold, right there!

"You look fabulous!" (character property of Pixar)
Ooh, this is getting long. Let's see, the Lunar queen. As a villain, she served her purpose. I wanted to smack her silly every time she came on the page and then sneak back and short-sheet her bed. Witch witch witch. Cinder's suspicious companion, the doctor whose name I can't remember, is spectacular. He's one of those slippery characters who's impossible to pin down until the very end. Is he good? Is he bad? Is he going to betray Cinder or help her? Love him! I have less love (but no hatred) for her quirky little android companion. She's supposed to be sassy and fun, but I just kept seeing the beautician bot from WallE.

The book is certainly suspenseful in part but not terribly subtle in its big reveal. I guessed most of the major twists long before the "tada!". Still, I'm interested to see what Meyer has planned for her other retellings and for Cinder herself, and I think this first endeavor is one that many readers will appreciate.

Points Added For: Unique settings, being a fairy tale retelling, the whole new take on Cinderella losing her shoe, conniving doctors, stepfathers instead of fathers, practical protagonists.

Points Subtracted For: One-dimensional step-families, dead parents/step-parents, somewhat unbelievable Lunar "evolutions" (I prefer my science to be sound; if not, just call it magic), being able to guess the twists.

Good For Fans Of: Fairy tale retellings, cyborgs, snarky sidekicks.

Notes For Parents: No language that I can remember, some secondhand violence (violence recounted by another character).

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