The YA genre really seems to have expanded and diversified recently, even just in the five years or so since I was almost exclusively reading YA books. Especially in sci-fi and fantasy, YA has become remarkably inventive with its creative plots and unique world-building. YA isn’t just for teens anymore. I think the Twilight saga, back in its heyday, was one of the first modern YA stories to attract a wider audience, and it’s no longer uncommon to see adults shopping for themselves in the YA section at bookstores. I’m beginning to feel just past the usual age for YA books, but recently I’ve been noticing that there are still some gems there I don’t want to miss. YA fiction may have different rules of conduct than adult fiction, but I think for this reason it’s important not to overlook the category if you’re interested in taking literature to its limits. And so I’m diving back in. Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series, first book Cinder, is one of the few YA series that my small library owns the complete set of, so I recently picked this one up.
About the book: Cinder is the cyborg stepdaughter of a woman who despises her and an inventive man who has died of the letumosis plague. Set in New Beijing after the fourth world war, this story features a society desperately seeking a cure for letumosis, which has swept the globe, leaving no survivors among those who seem to have been randomly infected. On top of surviving the plague horrors, Cinder must also earn a living for her greedy family by working as a mechanic. Her booth in the marketplace is visited by an unusual guest–Prince Kai. The royal family is having trouble of its own, trying to reach a peace agreement with the Lunars, a powerful society based on Earth’s moon. The upcoming annual ball is the least of Cinder’s concerns, and even though Kai has issued her a special invitation, she isn’t allowed to attend. She isn’t allowed to do much of anything these days–maybe not even to live, especially as Cinder unearths royal and Lunar secrets that may affect her life more than she ever would’ve guessed.
There is so much about this book that is unexpected. I knew beforehand that there would be ties to the classic Cinderella story, and I knew Cinder would be a cyborg. I anticipated a typical YA love story with Cinder heading off into the sunset with Prince Kai by the end of the book, but every time I thought I had found a path through the complexities of the story, I was hit with another twist. I wasn’t expecting a deadly plague, a character more evil and dangerous for Cinder than her uncaring stepmother, or rumors about the ruling family of the moon. All of the Cinderella story details I’d expected faded into the background as the unique, futuristic elements took over. This is a whole new fairy tale:
“Cinder stared at the holograph and imagined watching herself die. In real time.”
Best aspect: world building. I’ll let Meyer and Cinder speak for themselves here:
“Cinder opened her eyes. The netscreen on the wall had changed, no longer showing her life stats. Her ID number was still at the top, headlining a holographic diagram. Of a girl. A girl full of wires. It was as if someone had chopped her down the middle, dividing her front half from her back half, and then put her cartoonish image into a medical textbook. Her heart, her brain, her intestines, her muscles, her blue veins. Her control panel, her synthetic hand and leg, wires that trailed from the base of her skull all the way down her spine and out to her prosthetic limbs. The scar tissue where flesh met metal…those things she had expected.”
Worst aspect: Cinder’s a bit of a dunce when it comes to people. She’s a great mechanic who makes intelligent plans and has the competency to carry them out, but despite her built-in lie detector, she has trouble understanding the motives of the people she’s around. She’s constantly underestimating her stepmother, can’t quite guess what the doctor in charge of plague research is hiding from her even after the reader is able to figure out the pieces of that puzzle, and she can’t see what Queen Levana is capable of until a third party steps in to point out the obvious. Cinder is not a weak character. She’s not even unobservant. But she’s slow to realize what the reader’s already figured out. She also sees less value in herself than most of the other characters, which is saying something considering the way most people of this time period treat cyborgs.
” ‘I didn’t know how to control it. I didn’t know what was happening…It’s probably a good thing I’m in here. There’s nowhere out there I would fit in, not after that.’ “
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This book started off rocky for me; the first couple of chapters failed to impress me, but after a couple more I’d gotten the gist of the world and fell into the rhythm of the switching character perspectives and the plot hook at the end of each chapter that kept me turning pages. The story was more complex than I expected setting out, and I am definitely intrigued at how the events laid out in this first volume will continue to branch out and solidify in the next three books. I’m also excited to see the perspectives of more new characters in this futuristic world–while I enjoyed the world, the plot, and some of the characters, I didn’t necessarily love Cinder, but I need to know what will happen to her and the rest of the cast as the series progresses. I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, Scarlet, in the upcoming month.
- As YA retellings of famous stories go, Meg Cabot’s Avalon High, based on the story of King Arthur at Camelot, is a long-standing favorite of mine. A teen at the local high school comes to realize she may be living a reincarnation of Arthur’s story, but she can’t accept the same fate as her Arthurian counterpart succumbed to.
- If you want more YA fantasy, try Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. I actually liked the spin-off series better, but Clare’s books are best read in publication order, which begins with City of Bones. This series isn’t quite as futuristic as The Lunar Chronicles, but there are definitely more fantasy elements and the level of world-building detail is superb.
What’s next: Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is a beautiful and powerful little novel about an old woman living on the coast of Australia, who begins to notice a tiger visiting the inner rooms of her house at night–a tiger that may or may not be real. The tiger is not the only thing moving into Ruth’s home, though, and may turn out to be the least dangerous new addition… Stay tuned to learn more.
The Literary Elephant
Update: you can now find my complete review of the next book in this series, Scarlet, here!