Tuesday, April 29, 2014

She Was a Cyborg, and She Would Never Go to a Ball

The Lunar Chronicles
Book 1

By Marissa Meyer
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Even in the future, the story begins with
Once Upon a Time...

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . .

Sixteen-year-old Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future. Because there is something unusual about Cinder, something that others would kill for.

While technically I read this as part of the Chez Apocalypse book club, I can also 'blame' my purchase of it on Emi of Oktopus Ink for her review of the third book, Cress. But that's more than enough name-drops and links for one intro, what about the book itself? Well, with a cover like that, you can bet seeing this on shelves definitely piqued my interest. Add in the mash-up element of Cyborgs and Cinderella, and I was more than ready to be whisked away into a weird and wonderful SciFi Fairytale.

Our main protagonist and Cinderella re-imagining, Cinder, is quite the firecracker. Part downtrodden member of society, part spunky tomboy, and part star-crossed lover, she is both familiar and fresh. Far from the passive character who lets friendly mice and birds do the work, this mechanic is not only hardworking, she also isn't afraid to sass her evil stepmother when the occasion warrants it. Maybe not that unique in terms of today's YA heroines, nevertheless Cinder was a fun new interpretation of the classic role.

Prince Kai, on the other hand, didn't have much going for him. Granted, the original story only has the prince serving as the one-night love interest and savior, but even though here we get to know him over the course of multiple meetings during a week, we still don't get much. He's kind to and protective of his subjects, he's extremely tactless and sarcastic toward people he doesn't like, and he's interested in Cinder. Oh, and he's hopeful of finding this long-dead person to come and help solve the world's political problems. Perhaps not the greatest guy you'd want in charge.

In terms of their romance, I gotta agree with the book club leaders: it wasn't very believable. Granted, neither is the original material, but at least that's built on a fantasy premise to begin with. This story is trying to flesh things out and give more substance, and I'll admit that making their relationship develop over the course of a week instead of one night is a good start. Yet, even with the extended time frame their whole relationship is built off of lies/secrets, plus their conversations are practically pointless. They have nothing in common, how can either of them think this is a good idea?

Okay, I can understand Cinder's infatuation. I mean, after being given so little attention and praise for her whole life, the sudden friendship with an attractive member of the opposite sex is bound to induce thoughts of romance, no matter how practical she claims to be. Kai, on the other hand, has SO much on his plate, what with a plague and an impending war, why is he making jokes and ogling this mechanic? We know he doesn't think of her when she's not around, as evidenced in the sections told from his perspective, so how are we supposed to root for this relationship? Sure, we're rooting for Cinder's happiness, but I can't say I'm rooting for this guy.

But even more than the let down in the love interest, my biggest disappointment was probably the underdeveloped world-building. While enough to get the characters from point A to point B, it left far too many questions for the critical reader. For example, why are cyborgs considered lesser people? Sure, it adds a cool layer to the Cinderella story, giving a socially acceptable reason for her to be treated like a slave in her own 'family', but we never learn why or how society came to that decision. Was it induced by propaganda because of needing 'lower' test subjects for the plague? Is there a bad luck superstition associated with people who already befell misfortune? Are people pissed because cybernetic surgeries come out of their taxes? Any of these would be valid explanations, but as none were chosen we're just left to wonder.

The lack of world-building also had me questioning the placement of the story. Why China? None of the characters really acted overly 'Chinese', save for a few honorifics, saying the surname before given name, and a random Buddha statue or kimono thrown in for good measure. I get that this is supposed to be the future, so maybe a couple hundred years and two devastating World Wars have diluted the culture to Could-Literally-Be-Anywhere-istan. But I feel like if you're going to select a nontraditional location that has foreign flair, then give it the foreign flair! Give us some distinct landmarks, clothing, religion, food, something that justifies the setting. As it was it felt like it just wanted to be different without actually being different.

In case you couldn't tell by all the references I've already made, this story is still very much the classic fairytale. If a reader was unfamiliar with the original maybe the nods to the classic story wouldn't stick out so much, but as someone familiar with multiple versions of the Cinderella story (Grimm's, Disney's, Ella Enchanted (book and movie), and Ever After) I found a few of the references painfully obvious. For example, at one point Cinder and her robot pal rummage through a junkyard and happen upon a beat up old orange car, to which the robot states, "It looks more like a rotting pumpkin." Gee, I wonder if that will ever come into play later.

It also had a few instances of foreshadowing that felt less like foreshadowing and more like obvious winks to the camera. Gee, this mysterious person keeps coming up in conversations, I wonder if that will be important. I kept thinking that maybe, just maybe it would be this huge fake-out, because really it couldn't be that obvious. Nope. It's exactly what you think it'll be.

And yet, for all it's faults, I found the whole fairytale aspect utterly charming. It was fun seeing the framework of Cinderella holding up something else entirely. It gave the whole story more of a cutesy feeling, even undermining the plague and the political intrigue. After all, who cares if the world goes to war if it means the hot prince can fall in love with a lowly mechanic? Yes, the larger issues and overarching storyline do feel a bit at odds with the fairytale elements at times, especially concerning the romantic elements, but it's enjoyable for what it is.

That ending though, what a doozy. I can't say I fully understood Cinder's actions at the ball, but I'm definitely interested in what comes next. I guess if you don't like the book then there's not a huge draw to continue with the next one, no huge cliffhanger or anything like that. But if you're like me, you're going to want Scarlet and Cress as soon as possible. How are other fairytales going to fit in, how will Cinder's story pan out, and will Earth enter into a Lunar war?

Overall, Cinder was a fun concept and introduction to what looks to be an intriguing series. I'd recommend it for anyone interested in Fairytales with a SciFi twist, Monster Mash-Ups, or those who enjoy YA Paranormal Romance. No language, sex or violence, but there are a couple plague-related deaths, and with the politics and general romance I'd suggest this for those in high school and older. So if you're feeling a little nostalgic but want something new, or are in the mood for something a little silly yet serious, you should definitely take a little time and give Cinder a read.

Approximate Reading Time: 5 hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Rebecca Soler
Length: 10 Hours
Listened at 2x Speed

As with every book featuring foreign or fantasy names, places, or creatures, I highly recommend the audiobook to aid in pronunciations. Though the story didn't have too many weird names, I still found it immensely helpful to not have to guess and stumble every time a Linh-jiě or something similar rolled around.

Unfortunately there's not much else to say about this production. Not great, not bad, just middle of the road for me. Ms. Soler did an okay job with her cast voices, though I admit I found a little disappointment in the lack of Asian accents, making the recording as bland as the writing in that aspect. My favorite part, by far, was the single chapter involving the world council which involved multiple nationalities' accents (the Aussie was my fave). Still, everything is clear and easily understandable, so I can't really complain too much. If you've got a copy handy and are interested in the story, I'd say give it a listen, but don't go out of your way for this one.