I had a lot of apprehensions about this book. When I saw New Beijing and Linh Cinder and Marissa Meyer, I had the knee-jerk reaction that I’m sure most Asian people would empathize with: ‘oh no, they’re going to butcher my culture for the sake of a retelling, and it will unleash a swarm of weeaboos’.
Imagine my surprise when Marissa Meyer did not do an utterly terrible job of retelling Cinderella. (Perhaps my expectations have stooped so low?) Given the cesspit of authors who disrespectfully use my culture to make themselves or their stories appear ‘cool’, ‘cultured’ or ‘exotic’ (ew?), well, Cinder is a minor transgressor. Apart from the use of honourifics, integration of ‘Chinese culture’ (which were a bit stereotypical, but not blatantly so) into the setting, and very strange sounding Chinese names, Meyer doesn’t explore other elements of Chinese culture. Is that bad? It’s disappointing, but at this point, I’d rather she didn’t at all than butcher it completely.
Cinder takes place in a futuristic New Beijing, where cyborgs are second-class citizens and a monarchy rules the Eastern Commonwealth empire. Cinder is a cyborg, a gifted mechanic who finds herself caught in the middle of an intergalactic power struggle, a plague epidemic, and has also caught the eye of the Emperor’s son, Prince Kai.
The reason why I liked Cinder more than I thought it would was because it was enjoyable. It was an easy read meant for easy consumption, with just enough intensity, intrigue and tension to keep me reading. Cinder is what you expect it to be: a fun book for people who enjoy retellings with an imaginative setting, interwoven with science-fiction-esque elements.
In saying that though, I was disappointed with some elements of this book. Coupled with the extremely predictable ‘plot-twist’, Cinder’s character development was boring and unoriginal. Yes, she is independent and sarcastic and fiesty, but beyond that, she has no essence. Cinder’s character development is born from the superficial cry for ‘strong female characters’. The ‘strong female character’ trope has created a portrayal of women that is reductive and simplistic (and often very Eurocentric, i.e. ‘strong female characters’ are loud, assertive, have no respect for authority, reckless), to the extent that audiences reject women who do not meet the ‘strong female character’ ideal and writers are writing women to be characters that embody all those traits — and that’s it. They are simplistic and lack any sort of development out of fear that they will be labelled as weak.
Don’t get me wrong – sometimes I do enjoy seeing these characters in the media, and I’d choose that portrayal over sexist portrayals any day – but women are so much more complex than that. We are much more than sarcastic, fiesty, loud, etc. Excellent female characters cannot be reduced to ticks on a simple checklist. Excellent female characters are ones that have depth – even if they do not possess ‘strong’ qualities. Yes, we need strong characters, yes we need strong women, but we also need women with a variety of backgrounds, histories, ideas, attitudes and personalities. We need characters that we can empathize with, we need characters so that we can see ourselves (past, present of future) in them, and we need characters that inspire us. My favourite characters were the ones that did all these things — not because they were strong specifically – but because they reminded us of our humanness.
But I digress. Another issue I had with Cinder was that Meyer doesn’t illuminate on several plot points that require readers to take on by faith; two big questions for me were: what is Cinder’s condition as a cyborg (I was confused as to what cyborg meant by the end of the book), and what are the Lunars and how did they get there? Perhaps these are questions to be explored in the subsequent books, but the fact that these core plot point are never explained without acknowledgement of these questions, it conveys poor, shallow storytelling, not mystery.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked Cinder well enough. As I’ve emphasized, it’s the sort of book that is nice and comforting (I read this when I was sick and it kept me company). It is not a book that will take up the cracks and corners of your mind, but it is the sort of book that you can read in the small gaps of your day. As Cinder is the first of The Lunar Chronicles series, I do believe that it has potential still. In the future, I will pick up Scarlet, the second book of the series, and hope that Meyer develops her characters, the setting, and the plot maintains its momentum.
Book Name: Cinder
Book Series: The Lunar Chronicles #1
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends