Review: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

So Chapters was having one of those promotions where you could buy 2 for 1 YA books, so I thought I’d stock up on titles that I’ve wanted to read for a long time but kept passing them by for whatever reason.

Cinder is one of those books where a single phrase can sell it. In this case, that phrase is “cyborg Cinderella” or “cyborg Cinderella in futuristic China”. Our Cinderella in this case is Cinder, a mechanic whose status as a cyborg makes her a second class citizen in plague-ridden New Beijing who becomes embroiled in an intergalactic conflict between the governments of Earth and the sinister Lunar race that waits and watches for a crack in their armor. But no one, not even Cinder herself, knows that there is something unusual about her, something others would kill for.

Cinder started off strong. The impact of Letumosis is immediately apparent, and what begins as a request to fix a broken android soon takes an interesting turn. I liked that Cinder had a strong bond with the younger stepsister, Peony. There aren’t many Cinderella stories I’ve read where the Cinderella figure is friendly with her stepsisters. The writing itself is tolerable, although I started noticing more and more awkward turns of phrase the more I read.

Unfortunately, I started noticing things that made me cringe. The Emperor who lives in New Beijing has a Japanese name, people eat dumplings and wear kimono in addition to ball gowns. I guess you could explain away the cultural fusion with the fact that the Eastern Commonwealth represents all of Asia, but this just strikes me as sticking on elements of various Asian cultures because….they’re cool? And I suspect anyone who knows anything about the history of Japanese imperialism in China to cringe when they read about an Emperor of all of Asia with a name like Rikan. Speaking of the world-building, why are cyborgs oppressed, again? Cinder can consult virtual blueprints in real time and tell when people are lying, among other things. Unless she lives in a dystopian society where everyone who needs an artificial limb or crutches is horribly oppressed (and our current society certainly treats disabled people like shit), I’m just not buying it.

Speaking of the emperor, let’s talk about the love interest. Prince Kai is about as bland as love interests go, and while I’m used to bland love interests (I’ve watched plenty of early Disney movies), this one spends most of the book being an annoying brat who for some reason has no idea how to run a country. You would think he would have been trained to take his father’s place eventually, but apparently not. Torin, his confidante, would make a far superior emperor, as he seems to actually know what he’s doing in matters of diplomacy.

As if having a wicked stepmother and stepsister weren’t enough, Marissa Meyer throws in an evil queen for good measure. Queen Levana is evil because she brutally suppresses all dissent on the moon and has creepy mind control powers which she uses to make herself appear very attractive. (It’s implied that without her abilities, she’s hideous and so she always appears veiled when on camera.) Also she wants world domination. Honestly, she’s pretty standard as far as evil queens go. Now, beauty in fairy tales has frequently been used to separate the good characters from the bad characters, so this is nothing new, although we could go into the racism and classism underlying its use in traditional stories. In this case though, Queen Levana’s femininity seems suspiciously emphasized. She’s described as being attired “like a bride” in her introductory scene, whereas Cinder engages in a traditionally masculine occupation.

When I talked about my initial impressions, some people informed me that Meyer once wrote Sailor Moon fanfiction. There’s a tendency to bash published works that were based on fanfiction, which I don’t think is very fair, but in this case, it’s hard not to think of Cinder as Usagi, Kai as Mamoru, and Queen Levana as Queen Beryl, especially in the last case, and at that point, I lost interest in the book. Also, this is yet another book where the protagonist has some sekrit speshulness, and in this case, the sekrit speshulness is evident the moment the Lunar Heir is introduced, if not earlier.

In terms of diversity, although the book is set in China, Meyer’s characters are at best racially ambiguous. The author has stated that her vision of future!China is multiracial, but that isn’t really evident in the text. I recall Dr. Erland having an assistant that was dark-skinned, but she’s so forgettable that he doesn’t even remember her name!

Cinder has an intriguing premise that is ultimately let down by a lack of believable world-building and trite, stereotypical characters. I was looking forward to reading this series but this book (and the preview for the second one, which is set in France) did nothing for me.

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