(Warning: this review contains lots of spoilers.)
Once upon a time I read Cinder and loved it. Twice upon a time I reread Cinder and gave it a big, fat “meh.” By all accounts it’s exactly my brand of catnip. (Retelling of a fairy tale? Check. Romantic arc? Check.) I thought it would hold up to a second reading. And yet it was a struggle to get into the book. The first 200 pages were a slog and my interest was only consistently held after the 300 page mark.
I’ve been discussing this with my friend, the talented and ridiculously story-smart Kate. It’s been a wide-ranging conversation, but mostly focuses on characters’ goals and the inherent re-readability of any Cinderella story.
Let’s first focus on characterization.
Author Jennifer Crusie has this rule when it comes to characters: competence attracts you, while vulnerability gets you to invest. This makes sense, right? Competence is sexy. But you arguably only see the real them, the thing that makes them unique, when they are vulnerable. Because vulnerability is personal—or should be.
And the natural conduit for these things is their goals. Kate summed it up nicely: “I feel like the natural way to show both competence and vulnerability is in pursuit of a want. Vulnerability is in wanting something enough to try for it and to put yourself out there. Or after the try, when they wait to find out if they succeeded or failed. The despair if they fail, the joy if they succeed. Competence can be how they go about pursuing their goals.”
In the first 200 pages of Cinder our leads are in vulnerable situations. Cinder is a slave and Kai is forced to watch his father, the Emperor, waste away from an incurable plague. Vulnerable = invest, right?
Somehow their vulnerable situations aren’t personal. Do I pity them? Absolutely. Do I want them to succeed? Yeah. But this isn’t translating into interest for me. And maybe it doesn’t feel personal, maybe it feels bland, because my assumptions of how their goals will pan out are too accurate. Kai has to fail to keep the peace with Luna or there’s no story. Cinder has to survive and fix Kai’s android or there’s no story.
My interest is only piqued when something unexpected happens with their goals, revealing a new nugget of vulnerability or competency. Kai fails to get Cinder to go to the ball. He shows (consent-conscious) tenacity in asking again. And again. That’s something you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a prince who’s used to getting his way. For Cinder the moment comes when she fails to save her sister Peony.
It doesn’t help that most their goals are slow burners. A lot of them are things they just need to avoid, leading to stagnant situations. Kai needs to not marry Levana. Cinder needs to not die, to not lose her spirit. They have very limited options and spend the story either in stalemates or at the mercy of other factors. If there aren’t shorter-term goals, this becomes drudgery for the reader.
Added to that the fact that their stagnant situations provide little opportunity to demonstrate competence. Cinder is an esteemed mechanic and Kai is hinted at being a good Emperor-in-the-making (though this doesn’t get seriously tested until the final scenes.) I’d argue that Cinder is the stronger character for this being a consistent part of her characterization. But it doesn’t solve the whole problem.
Usually in stories like this, where the plot eases off, the relationship picks up, until the conclusion when they both crescendo. But their relationship doesn’t help the momentum. Sure it’s another source of tension because she’s cyborg and Lunar and he doesn’t know. (Heck, she doesn’t even know she’s Lunar for a while.) But no writer is going to reveal that before the ball. So it’s nominally tension, but you know when this time bomb is going to detonate, meaning you can put that tension aside.
Now these are all structural problems that I didn’t notice or didn’t care about the first time through. So this raises the question of whether the Cinderella fairy tale is structured in a way that is weaker upon retelling. Kate puts it like this: “How many Cinderella re-tellings do you think got the pacing perfectly right, and that you’d happily re-watch? Cinderella—more so than Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, or many other romantic, female centered fairy-tales—has a natural lag time until the ball.If you read a storybook version, the ball enters by like the third paragraph, at the latest. But we always hold it until the third act. The Cinderellas I’ve seen either take great joy in the slow and delightful journey, or they diverge from the script quite a lot. I wonder if Cinder hewed too closely to traditional Cinder pacing for a sci-fi adventure story?”
My gut reaction is that I’d watch the Brandi version of Cinderella any day of the week, dammit. So it can be done. She raises an interesting point, though, in that the Brandi version isn’t straddling genres. But that is a different conversation for a different time.
I’m an editor at heart. As soon as I identify a story’s problem, for me the next question is automatically “well, how do we fix it?” There isn’t an easy editorial solution for this. As Kate mentioned, in a story with this much world building, something has got to be put off until later chapters. And that is a fair observation. Meyer has laid the foundation for a truly admirable nested structure. But my point is that what is lacking is robust characterization, and that’s not something that can be delayed. (A case for lazy characterization and world building is supported by the multiple claims of cultural appropriation in the use of pan-Asia as a stand-in for the exotic.) Cultural issues aside (which I am by no means dismissing—it just falls outside of the purview of this discussion), better characterization could be attained by a better balance of competence and vulnerability… meaning more/different goals for the characters and more/different opportunities to surprise the reader.
Like I said, attaining a better balance is not a simple fix. But there is one easier solution. I found that I didn’t appreciate Cinder nearly as much as I could and should have until she is compared to Cress 300+ pages in. The way Cress is self-doubting and emotional highlights Cinder’s strength and resolve. (Not that Cress isn’t those things. It’s just expressed in different ways.) I would have loved to see a comparison to a neutral party of roughly her age and description, if only to gain a better understanding of her through contrast. (Kai is the romantic interest, Iko is the quirky sidekick, and her step-sisters have their own roles. A character along the lines of Chang Sunto, someone she would casually encounter at the market, would be ideal.)
Problematic bits aside, Meyer really has built the framework for an interesting interpretation of an old classic. If these issues aren’t too aggravating or triggering for you, and you are a fan of fairy tales, it is worth the read. Just probably not a second one.
Trigger warnings: death of character, loss of autonomy, cultural appropriation, discrimination