Linh Cinder is the best mechanic in New Beijing, renowned for her skills in repairing just about anything technological. What very few people know is that she’s a cyborg, her artificial body parts making her a second-class citizen, virtually enslaved by her needlessly cruel stepmother. Her only allies are her stepsister Peony, and the family droid, Iko. She dreams of being free, of breaking her stepmother’s legal hold over her, of hiding her mechanical foot and hand, or opening a shop where she alone is in control. A chance meeting with Prince Kai, the heir to the Eastern Commonwealth’s throne, is about to change everything, setting into motion a fantastic and thrilling series of events.
This isn’t the Cinderella story you’re expecting.
The future is full of strange new problems. The deadly letumosis plague strikes at random, inevitably killing its victims. Cyborgs are being drafted for testing to help develop a vaccine, and Cinder fears her number will be up any day now. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Lunars are on the verge of declaring war upon Earth, their psychic powers and soulless shock troops more than a match for any opponent. Only desperate diplomacy has staved off conflict this long, but Queen Levana, inhumanly beautiful and utterly merciless, has her eye on marrying Prince Kai. She’ll claim victory any way she can.
With things already tense, all it takes is a single spark. When Cinder’s stepsister contracts the plague, Cinder is “volunteered” for vaccine research. There, in the bowels of the palace laboratory, she discovers aspects of her past purposefully kept hidden from her, even as she’s drawn into the cold war between Earth and Luna. Meanwhile, she’s developing a friendship with Prince Kai, one that flies against common sense and self-preservation. It all comes to a head when she’s invited to a royal ball, and all the secrets come out in the open.
On the surface, this book has everything you’d expect from a Cinderella retelling. A good-natured young woman, tormented by an evil stepmother, falls for a handsome prince. She goes to a ball, dances, and runs like hell. This being the first installment of a planned quartet, there’s no happily ever after to be found yet, but it’s not hard to predict one will show up by the time all is said and done.
However, Marissa Meyer has taken the familiar framework, reduced it to its base elements, and used it to construct something quite different from Grimm, Disney, or any of those other well-known iterations. In doing so, she’s given us a fresh, exciting take on the old tale.
For one thing, Cinder defies the “one day my prince will come” stereotype. She’s feisty and independent, resourceful and stubborn. She’s a skilled mechanic who fights for her friends and herself with every ounce of strength, even when things get truly awful. Rather than moon over a guy, she does everything she can to stay away from him, aware of her social stigma as a cyborg and the impossibility of their relationship succeeding. When she goes to the ball, it’s not to win a prince and a good life, it’s to try and prevent further disaster. She’s the rough-and-tumble tomboy heroine many of us have been looking for, to set a new example in the genre.
Meyer does a good job of building up the setting. It’s an unspecified point in the future, noted as 126 T.E., sometime after World War IV, and far enough from today to allow for the rise of a Lunar colony and the creation of the Eastern Commonwealth, one of six major governments representing Earth. Given the opportunity to place her story anywhere, it’s interesting that Meyer places it in what’s obviously the Asian-influenced area of the world. The city is New Beijing, family names are noted as coming before personal (i.e. Linh Cinder) and there’s the odd callback to “old world style” in fashion and architecture. However, there’s not much else to truly anchor this to a specific culture or heritage. It’s a science fiction future, with plenty of cultural overlap and evolution, full of nifty technology and convenient widgets. I’m not sure what to think about this, in retrospect. Points for the unusual setting, but less than full marks for not taking more advantage of the possibilities?
There’s a lot of slow-burning setup to this book, and I’m a little worried that trying to stretch the story out into four volumes may be overdoing it a little. Then again, since we use most of the Cinderella plot points by the time we get to the end, that may give Meyer a lot more room for maneuvering in the future. There’s a lot left unresolved at the end of this book, so it’s not like she’ll be lacking for plotlines to continue.
Overall, this is a pretty strong start to the series. Like I noted, it’s definitely an interesting twist on the fairy tale, using the core elements for structure while taking liberties with the details and playing with expectations. There’s some pretty severe predictability laced into the storyline; I can’t even mention it without giving away a major plot point. However, the second a certain piece of background information was mentioned, I knew exactly how it would all come together by the end. But hey, it wouldn’t be a fairy tale without certain things happening.
While Cinder does have its flaws, it’s a solidly entertaining story, and one of the best re-imaginings of Cinderella I’ve see in ages. I’ll definitely be interested to see what Meyer does now that she’s laid the groundwork for the rest of the story. I’ll be rooting for our feisty cyborg heroine all the way.
You can read a free spoiler-free prequel to Cinder, “Glitches,” right here on Tor.com.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Roanoke, VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who occasionally steals whatever he’s reading. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at www.michaelmjones.com/wordpress.