Marissa Meyer’s debut novel Cinder has been hyped a lot, but I went into it pretty blind, and I’m glad I did. I didn’t have any thoughts other than “Wow, this jacket copy makes it sound awesome, I hope it is!” Folks, I wasn’t disappointed. This is one buzzed novel that totally delivers.
So here’s the deal: Linh Cinder is a young mechanic who lives in New Beijing sometime in the distant future. She was in a mysterious accident as a young child, and the only way to save her life was to make her a cyborg. This means that she has some mechanical, non-human parts. Cyborgs in Cinder’s world are second-class citizens, and she’s bound to her stepmother by law. True to the Cinderella story from which this book takes its inspiration, Cinder’s stepmother is a hellacious beast. Within the first couple of chapters, she does something truly horrendous to Cinder, which sets in motion the action of the novel.
I can’t go much beyond that, but you know the story of Cinderella, so you know the book involves a prince (here his name is Kai), two stepsisters (here only one is bad), and a shoe. The fairy tale inspiration here isn’t quite as loose as it is in Anna Sheehan’s A Long Long Sleep (another fantastic SF), but it’s not just a re-telling either. If you know Cinderella, you know where the relationship between Kai and Cinder is going to go, but you won’t know much beyond that.
My favorite part of Cinder is the world-building. There’s an awful plague in Cinder’s world that’s highly contagious and incurable. The emperor and his son, Kai, are desperately working to find a cure. Meanwhile, they’re also delicately negotiating with the queen of the Lunars (yes, people who live on the moon) in order to prevent a war. If you think Cinder’s stepmother is a hellacious beast, wait until you meet Queen Levana. There are a bunch of other elements going on here, but the end result is New Beijing and its denizens feel fully realized. They also don’t feel derivative of anything else I’ve read, despite the novel’s inspiration.
The writing is smooth and miles beyond what most debut authors can accomplish. It’s not as beautifully immersive as Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone nor as distinctive as Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking, but it never once brought me out of the story with an awkward turn of phrase. I’d pick up the book, and the next time I looked away from it, 100 pages were gone. I give major credit for that to Meyer’s decision to write in third person past tense.
I also loved the characters. Cinder and Kai, our two leads, are fairly complex. Cinder’s android companion, although not made of any human parts, is written so well that she seems human. Cinder’s younger sister (the nice stepsister) is both spoiled and sweet, making her realistic and easy to like. Even the hellacious beast of a stepmother feels like a three-dimensional character in Meyer’s hands. And Queen Levana is so deliciously evil (so far, at least) that she is always a treat to read about.
Although there was one major plot point that I found completely predictable, most of the story felt unique and fresh. I think it’s indicative of a publishing trend towards more straightforward science fiction that isn’t classified as dystopian. The plague may bring to mind a dystopia, and it wouldn’t surprise me if many people classified Cinder that way (the term is so over-used!), but the novel is not truly a dystopia. It’s just plain old science fiction, and that’s what makes it so awesome.
Like a lot of YA science fiction being published now, Cinder is a great choice for readers who like their science fiction without complex science. That doesn’t mean it’s a great choice for readers who don’t naturally like science fiction, just that you don’t really have to remember much of your high school physics class to get it. There’s also not a whole lot of new jargon to learn, which may make it more friendly to people who tend to stay away from SF.
This is the first book in a quartet, but it passes my rule of “All books must include a beginning, middle, and end,” so it gets a pass. In fact, it gets more than that – I eagerly await the next installment.