Fairy tales are back with a vengeance. The last few years have seen several authors and filmmakers taking childhood classics and retooling them for modern audiences. Most of these renditions feature a few new twists on the stories, but other than making them more romantic (think Disney’s “Tangled” or “Snow White and the Huntsman”) or darker (like Warner Brothers’ 2011 remake of “Red Riding Hood”) than the versions most of us heard growing up, the settings are pretty much the same. An exception could be argued for ABC’s popular show “Once Upon A Time,” which transports its denizens of folklore to a small town in Maine, but even in this rendition the characters’ true home before the present curse was in the same locale as the old stories.
Enter “Cinder,” the first book in The Lunar Chronicles by new author Marissa Meyer, that may very well be one of the most unique slants on a fairy-tale setting to date. Although it is set in China, where the oldest known Cinderella version comes from, Meyer’s story has carved out its own unique locale in the fairy-tale canon.
Meyer’s debut novel takes place in a future society where the world has been divided into a handful of super states, such as the African Union, the American Republic, etc. New Beijing, the capital city of the Eastern Commonwealth, bustles with hovercars and androids but still retains many of the cultural elements we typically associate with China, such as food and surname placement.
Despite the world’s technological advancements, however, it still struggles with some of the age-old problems of mankind: lust for power, prejudice, and disease. At the start of the story the latter malady is the most serious issue facing the world. A plague is sweeping its way through the nations and is ravaging the populace of the Eastern Commonwealth. Everyone is affected by the outbreak; even the emperor is dying of the disease, leaving the young prince struggling with both unexpected grief and the sudden need to assume control of his realm.
Cinder, the main character of the tale, is dealing with another of society’s ills. Badly injured as a child, she has been modified through a variety of replacement parts to become a cyborg. Sadly, her world looks upon Cinder and other “handicapped” people as second-class citizens. They do not enjoy the same basic rights as other humans, and, at least in Cinder’s case, can be owned by others. They can also be drafted as human guinea pigs to practice any plague cures on. Tragically, these unwilling test subjects have a 100% mortality rate.
Cinder, though, is the type of person who tends to roll with the punches. A tough survivor of life’s hardships, both physically and mentally, she spends her days working in the market under the remote supervision of her stepmother and enjoying a reputation as the city’s finest repairer of broken high-tech objects. It is in this latter role that she first encounters Prince Kai, who has covertly sought her out to repair one of his androids. The prince has no suspicions about Cinder’s true nature, of course, since her clothing and gloves cover her more obvious prosthetic enhancements. However, as the story progresses and circumstances continue to force the two together, keeping who she really is a secret becomes increasingly more difficult.
One of the many strengths of this novel is Meyer’s ability to create memorable characters. For example, unlike the meek and mousy personalities of many of the traditional portrayals of Cinderella, Cinder is no pushover. While never vindictive or mean-spirited, she is unafraid, when the need arises, to stand up to her unloving stepmother and speak out against the injustice of her mistreatment. Nor is she too timid to battle the system or other characters when her own or a loved one’s life is on the line. In short, she is a fighter with a strong sense of what is right and wrong in the world.
Prince Kai is also a fighter, but in some ways he is even more trapped in his role than Cinder is in hers. Faced with the growing plague epidemic in his lands and the unpopular marriage designs on him by the powerful and politically dangerous lunar queen, he struggles with how best to protect his people and his own heart.
The most refreshing thing about this book, though, is its almost complete lack of negative aspects for Christian readers. In fact, other than Cinder being worried that the prince will see her projected body scans in the doctor’s office (which he doesn’t), there is only one other rather tame sexual question posed in the book—a question that, to her credit, Cinder herself dismisses as inappropriate. There is some thematic violence and some frightening situations, but these shouldn’t disturb most teen readers.
Overall, “Cinder” is one of the finest debut novels written for the young adult market that I have read in a long time.
Image copyright Feiwel & Friends. Review copy from the reviewer’s personal collection.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.