Book review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

Yes, I’ve decided to start doing book reviews, because what the world really needs is another opinion on books, specifically my opinion on books. Clearly.

I’ll start with “Cinder” by Marissa Meyer, because it’s the most recent book I read. Here’s the summary:

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.

It all sounds very dramatic, and I’m not sure that a struggle involving Earth and the moon counts as “intergalactic”, but it’s actually a really good book. I love seeing new takes on fairytales and myths, and that’s what this is. It’s the plot of Cinderella, transported into a futuristic setting where magic is science and happily-ever-afters aren’t all that easy, with some great twists and oh, yeah, three-dimensional, very real characters. I suppose it’s sci-fi, but it doesn’t feel like sci-fi. The futuristic technology is there and well-developed, but it doesn’t stand out; it feels integrated, and the story has a magical feel to it, so it’s very much still a fairytale despite the setting.

Cinder herself is a great character. Yes, she’s a cyborg, and yes, in the description that’s probably played for originality points, but while her being a cyborg does play a role, Meyer doesn’t depend on that to make her interesting. She’s smart, pragmatic, and inventive, and unlike the Cinderella of the original tale, she plans her own rescue instead of waiting for the prince to come marry her.

The fact that it’s based on a fairytale does ruin the “big reveal” to a degree, because you can do the maths and see it coming, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t care. The big question for me wasn’t how it would end, but rather how all of the elements from the fairytale would come together, how it would all play out. That, to me, was interesting to follow right up to the end of the book. References to the original Cinderella tale are woven cleverly into the story, but Meyer twists them in such a way that Cinder stays the hero and the focus of the story.

Importantly for me, most of the characters are interesting. Prince Kai is likable and well-rounded, a dutiful prince who can still banter like the teenage boy he is but also genuinely cares about his country and his people, although he does commit stupid occasionally. You’d think that a guy who’s been raised as the future ruler of a country would know a thing or two about diplomacy and not just shout out what’s on his mind. Although, in fairness to him, he does seem to have learned a few things by the end of the book, and his genuine good intentions and charm go a long way towards making up for it. Let’s just say that he’s lucky the queen likes him.

Cinder’s stepmother and older stepsister were a nice surprise, because they’re quite human. They’re mean, but not simply evil for the hell of it, and managed to get some sympathy from me even though I was firmly on Cinder’s side throughout. I kept wanting to know what happened before, how Cinder came into the family, and why her stepmother hated her so much. I didn’t get all the answers, but since this is the first in a four-book series, that was to be expected.

I’ve come to be wary of YA-type stories because a lot of the time, saving the world seems to become secondary to the really important question of which guy the heroine will end up choosing. You know, the real life-or-death stuff. “Forget the fate of the world, girls – who do you think is hotter?”

Cinder scores big on that front, because while there is a romance, it’s far from being the focus. Cinder is not concerned with marrying the prince, she’s more concerned with gaining her freedom, saving other people’s lives, and preventing a catastrophe. It’s Prince Kai who has to worry about marriage, not Cinder. Their relationship actually feels meaningful, because when they interact, they really connect, as opposed to just being attracted to each other.

Cinder does pretty well on the angst front, too. Obviously, there is some angst – anything else would be unrealistic given that the protagonist is sixteen years old. But it stays reasonable and understandable. That’s a big plus in my book, because I can’t stand whiny characters. Cinder does get upset and feels that life is unfair, but it’s always in situations where I can admit I’d feel the same way. The anti-cyborg sentiment and the mysterious plague add a bit of darkness and grit to the world and the story and give the characters something to angst about, but without getting too depressing. Sometimes it’s all a little melodramatic – Cinder and Kai both cross from “noble” to “stupid” on at least one occasion – but ultimately, she takes action. She has her own agenda, she’s resourceful, and when she doesn’t like something, she tries to change it. For that reason alone, I think, it’s a good book, especially for its target readership (girls in their teens and early twenties, I’d assume).

Because it’s the first book in a series, a real ending isn’t possible, but the book does manage to end in a way that gives some sense of closure; some things are resolved, and other things were set up and hinted at to leave me wanting more. I have high hopes for the rest of this series, which continues with “Scarlet”.