Cinder is one of the more high profile YA novels of recent years. The debut novel by Marissa Meyer, it is the first volume in the Lunar Chronicles series, which wrapped up late last year with Winter. The series is much discussed on book blogs and in BookTube videos, and a film adaptation of Cinder is apparently in the works. All of this means that, when I resolved to read more YA titles this year, Meyer’s novels were near the top of my list.
Having read Cinder, though, I am yet to decide whether to continue with the rest of the series. On one hand, there is some good stuff here. For a relatively short book, Cinder is packed with ideas. As the title suggests, this is a loose retelling of the Cinderella story and the way in which Meyer transmutes this well-known fairytale is both deliciously wry and wonderfully inventive.
She sets her story some distance into the future in a place known as New Beijing. We never get a clear idea what happened to ‘Old’ Beijing but we do find out that there have been a further two world wars since our time and that humankind has suffered a ‘Fall’ of some description. There are post-apocalyptic, dystopian tones here.
Cinder herself is a renowned mechanic who also happens to be a cyborg. Both she and her handsome prince, in this instance Prince Kaito (known as Kai), have a fine line in sarcasm and there are some nice, witty exchanges between the two. The wicked stepmother is still in evidence, but we have only one ugly stepsister in this instance (and ugly on the inside at that): The other is actually rather nice and is Cinder’s only human friend. All of these characters are affected by letumosis (helpfully autocorrected to legumes), a deadly plague that is sweeping across the planet.
This ‘micro story’ in which these characters are involved is tethered to a ‘macro story’ that, presumably, will run throughout the series. This involves a growing enmity between the people of Earth and the Lunar; a race with powers of psychic control ruled over by a – you guessed it – wicked queen (Levana).
And so we move onto the ‘on the other hand’ bit. Whilst the novel is absolutely packed with brilliant ideas, none of them are really explored in much depth. It is strongly implied that humanity has fallen but the nature of this Fall is never made clear. And the novel is set in New Beijing, which seems such a specific, considered choice but we get so little sense of its culture that it could have been set anywhere. More is made of the fact that Cinder is a cyborg but not enough. She is excluded, persecuted, feels like an outsider. But the broader implications of her nature are overlooked. To what extent is she human? What implications does this have for humanity? Is she, in some ways, more human than the humans? As with the implied Fall, Meyer sidesteps the opportunity to explore deeper themes and, as a consequence, the novel feels superficial.
The writing is also rather shaky in places. Even when unjust and horrible things happen to Cinder, the events are conveyed in stilted, somewhat flat language that fails to evoke much emotion. Berated by her stepmother in the most awful of ways, Cinder merely responds by ‘stomping her foot’, thus sucking all of the tension out of the scene in a millisecond.
I have to be fair here, though, and say that although I was hugely dissatisfied with the story, I was never bored and it did hold my interest. There are also some very well executed action scenes towards the end. This could have been so much more than a pacy blockbuster, though. Ultimately, I feel that this is a novel that starts out as being inventive and becomes a narrative full of wasted opportunities. It touches upon so many potentially thought-provoking themes that are never fully explored.