by Marissa Meyer
Unfortunately, Cinder was fated to be another of those popular books that not only failed to enrapture me but left me feeling rather like Cinderella's stepsisters after the ill-fated fittings: irritated, embarrassed, and plagued by an infuriating sense that it was the fault of the shoes, not my feet.
Yeah, so the shoe didn't fit. But maybe it wasn't because my feet were too large, but because the shoe was too durned small.
The premise of Cinder is tantalizing. A female cyborg mechanic in a futuristic world beset by a pandemic? A retelling of Cinderella where the heroine isn't merely lower-class but neither a citizen nor even fully human? Pass me my library card.
So how did a story so rife with potential manage to fall so flat?
Maybe my expectations were unrealistic, but I felt that the story was underdeveloped, lacking in both imagination and depth. Take one simple example: the plague itself. Here's what the reader knows about the the "blue plague": it is called Letumosis, it is invariably fatal, victims are placed into quarantine zones, and it has four extremely unpleasant stages. While we later learn a little more about it, we never learn the plague vector: is it spread by air? By bodily fluids? By something else entirely? Is it contagious in all stages? We never find out. We don't even find out if it is a bacterium, a virus, or something else. All we know is that meddroids are somehow able to magically scan for its presence or absense, independent of the stage, and possibly independent of the individual's infection status. The cure is referred to by the cringingly inaccurate term of "antidote" throughout. "Antidote" refers to a cure for poisoning, not disease. I suspect Meyer used this term because she didn't want to invest in actually thinking through her disease.(show spoiler)
Am I being a nitpicking, persnickety pedant? Yep.
But (a) that's who I am, and (b) I think this fuzzy failure of imagination is symptomatic of the book as a whole.
Take the worldbuilding. The story takes place in "New Beijing," which was rebuilt after WWIV. Asian-culture-infused futuristic cyborg societies? Definitely a win. But other than a few Chinese names thrown around, for all the actual Chinese culture infused in the story, it might as well have taken place in Nebraska. The same is true for the supposed futuristic aspects. There are a few scantily-described cyborgs, androids, and hovercars, but Cinder can still recognize a gasoline car and people still use netbook-like contraptions (called "netscreens") to communicate over the web. Personally, I believe that we'll see mainstream biotech devices within my lifetime, so I found it hard to believe that technology had advanced so little after so many centuries. The only interesting bit of tech was Cinder's supposed lie detector. Outside of the technical difficulties, if Cinder has such software, why isn't the tech more widespread in the futureworld? (Of course, this would, in turn, create a new market in defenses, creating the same sort of arms race that we see in antivirus software or even our current lie detectors.)
Culturally, we're supposed to believe that all the wars left Earth with only a few supergovernments, many of which are ruled by monarchs. As for the lunars, leaving aside the whole "we come from the moon" bit-- I don't think I've read about woo-woo-alienish moon colonists since I stopped reading pre-50's scifi-- the whole idea of a new lunar subspecies is rather problematic. Even though the colony is supposed to be only a few centuries old, the Lunars have developed into an entirely new subspecies with (wait for it) speshul magical powers. In only a few centuries. Sure, one could come up with some interesting explanations for it--planned mutations, failed genetic experiments, some sort of DNA-rewriting virus-- but (for a change) the author gives us no explanation, and I suspect she didn't think it through far enough to invent one.
The plot itself is unsurprising. Even leaving aside the Cinderella framing, you'll be able to guess most of it from the first few pages, all of it by 50%, and you'll still have to slog through to the end when all the other characters will be shocked. The instalove between the protagonist and the hot superstar prince was pretty typical for the genre, and the subsequent actions were equally predictable.(show spoiler)
At the same time, it's an easy enough read, and while it took me a certain amount of effort to push through the beginning, I thought things got more interesting when the lunars finally arrived.
My biggest complaint is against Cinder herself. I found her personality to be gratingly inconsistent with her backstory. We are told that cyborgs are a non-citizen underclass that cannot own property or earn wages. (The book is inconsistent on these points, but it is clear that cyborgs are low-class.) Even though she supposedly has never known an alternative way of life, Cinder bitterly resents her status and the fact that her stepmother has rights to all that she owns. (Even so, she somehow has the money to buy herself a foot in the story's opening and she somehow must be able to buy the supplies she needs. but these inconsistencies are ignored.) Take the opening moments in the story when Cinder, who assumed that she, too, would be going to the ball, is informed otherwise:
Irritation hardened in Cinder’s gut. She might have pointed out that Pearl and Peony could have been given ready-made rather than custom dresses in order to budget for Cinder’s as well. She might have pointed out that they would only wear their dresses one time too. She might have pointed out that, as she was the one doing the work, the money should have been hers to spend as she saw fit. But all arguments would come to nothing. Legally, Cinder belonged to Adri as much as the household android and so too did her money, her few possessions, even the new foot she’d just attached. Adri loved to remind her of that.
According to her backstory, Cinder has no memory of life before she became a cyborg. She should therefore have no experience of anything other than drudgery, dependence, and degredation. So where does this sense of entitlement come from? She keeps acting as though her treatment as an inferior is a surprise. Despite the supposed social differences, she addresses her family by first name and has no compunction ducking blame or throwing around insults and demands:
[To her stepsister] "Those boots make your ankles look fat. [...] I'm just glad you found at least one body part that's lovely."
[To her stepmother] “Honestly, I don’t care so much what you do and don’t appreciate right now. You’re the one who betrayed me, when I’ve never done anything to you.”
Maybe you can chalk all of this up to Cinder's unique personality, but personally, I think it is simply that the author didn't think through what it would mean to be born into the underclass.
However, my biggest disappointment was in the way that Cinder's cyborg nature was handled, or more accurately, left unhandled. Sure, Adri gets off a few snide jibes about Cinder's inability to manufacture tears, but other than her class-related concerns, Cinder herself seems unfazed by her cyborg nature. In fact, the ramifications of being cyborg are so focused on class and so separate from the nature of being cyborg that you could substitute any "untouchable" class and get almost precisely the same effect.
Given the fascinating issues involved, I was excited to read a book with a cyborg protagonist. When part of one's mind is pure computer, what does this mean for emotions? For one's sense of identity? In the melding of human and computer, would calculation war with emotion, or would they become indistinguishable? If part of your brain were a computer, would you see this part as still contributing to your identity, to your soul? Are you the same person that you were before the biotech transformation?
Sadly, Cinder leaves all such issues unexplored.
Overall, despite my litany of peevish complaints, Cinder isn't a bad story. Maybe the fault is in my expectations rather than the story itself. I expected something extraordinary but instead got a rather run-of-the-mill YA dystopian romance. Sure, Cinder wasn't actually abysmal, even for me. But my personal opinion? If you want to read a book about a futuristic dystopian world ravaged by plagues and a protagonist dealing with the consequences of genetic manipulation that leaves her as a nonperson, I wholeheartedly recommend (**although with serious trigger warnings**) The Windup Girl. If you want to read a story that explores the ramifications of computer-enhanced humans, I suggest Nexus. If you want to read an entertaining, imaginative, and enjoyable retelling of Cinderella, my personal favourite is Ella Enchanted. If you want to read this, well, everyone has different reading tastes, and as might be clear by now, Cinder did not suit mine.