So, a little while ago, I mentioned I was reading The Lunar Chronicles for the first time, and enjoying it. And I didn’t go into much further detail, as at the time I hadn’t yet finished the final book, and was waiting until I had to do a full review. Last week that goal was achieved, so here I am.
This is a series that’s been on the radar of YA/sci-fi/fairytale retelling/crossover fans for a number of years now. Many of us read it ages back, and I’m late to the party; but in this case it means I got to read everything at once, and appreciate the well-done tropes from a non-cynical point of view.
In the 2010s, I was so over fairytale retellings; the niche genre had really started gaining steam, and they were everywhere. So, while I like fairytales as much as the next former childhood-dress-up princess, I avoided these novels — and that included Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter.
Then, finally, last year, I bit the metaphorical bullet; now that the series has been published for a while, sets of all the paperbacks are cheaper than they used to be, and it was lockdown, and… I think everybody knows how the rest of that sentence goes. Anyway, onto the review already!
Cinder isn’t your typical rags-to-riches Cinderella-inspired story. For one, it’s very realistic, set in the future after a huge war, and lot of the problems society constantly struggles with — poverty, inequality, lack of resources, political trickiness — totally exist, and therefore the setting is quite relatable. Cinder herself is in fact a cyborg — basically half human and half robot — and her stepmother (not evil, but certainly nasty and unpleasant) resents having to buy her upgraded parts when something malfunctions or wears out. So, in the early chapters of the first book, Cinder is an excellent metaphor for disability and prejudice — neighbors and colleagues don’t completely trust her, for no reason other than her cyborg status; she’s deemed inferior by her stepmother, and only worthy of being assigned the chores no one else wants to do. The way this sentiment is expressed, in this context, is powerful. For all of us who couldn’t really understand why Cinderella was so put upon — they made her scrub the floors and stoke the fire because she was…pretty?? — Cinder is an infinitely more relatable figure.
While the most familiar elements of the original fairytale are present — there’s a handsome prince and a royal ball the servant isn’t allowed to attend — the rest of Cinder includes plot twists worthy of gasps, such as a worldwide plague of mysterious origin, a colony on the moon, a monarch who uses mind control to maintain power, and rumors of a lost princess. Despite a lot of heavy content, the writing style keeps an easy, flowing pace, with enough introspection that we get to know Cinder and the other characters pretty well, but don’t get bogged down in armchair psychology. There are some scenes that deliberately don’t reveal enough — seeing as it’s the first in a series — but the reader doesn’t feel lost or too puzzled.
The next book takes up where Cinder left off, and introduces the next protagonist, Scarlet, who’s a Little Red Riding Hood-ish figure. Scarlet lives on a farm with her grandmother — a very different setting from the big city Cinder lived in — so we get to see another perspective of this future Earth. Scarlet’s grandmother has gone missing, and while searching for clues to her loved one’s whereabouts, she encounters an unlikely ally, interestingly nicknamed Wolf.
Again, the familiar components of the fairytale have been turned on their head. Instead of a red cloak, Scarlet wears a red hoodie; Wolf looks human, but acts like an animal; the grandmother is hardly an innocent bystander, but has classified information that secret super soldiers from the moon colony would do almost anything to obtain. The result is that Scarlet is an exciting adventure that delves deeper into the lore of this universe, keeping up as well with Cinder’s new endeavors (now that she’s fled her city and been labeled a “cyborg fugitive”).
Author Marissa Meyer did a great job following her major plot threads through the series; before the end of Scarlet, we’re seamlessly introduced to our next heroine, Cress. Although there are now 3 storylines meeting in Cress, Meyer pulled it off. Here we add a Rapunzel-type to the mix; instead of a tower in the woods, Cress lives in a satelite, orbiting the Earth. She’s a prisoner of and unwilling spy for the evil Queen of Luna (what the moon colony is called). Due to a combination of factors, Cress’ satelite crashes in the Saharan desert, and after a lifetime in space, Cress finds herself on Earth.
As we proceed on this never-dull journey, the pieces don’t get convoluted, and rarely challenging to follow. All of the adventures lead towards going to the moon for justice and revenge in the final installment, Winter, named for the Lunar princess who is rumored to be more beautiful than the power-hungry Queen.
While I usually support trilogies over longer series, I could absolutely see the necessity of having a fourth book in The Lunar Chronicles. There were many hints to Snow White references in Scarlet and Cress, anyway. However, for the first time, I felt that the author struggled to maintain all the plates she had spinning.
It doesn’t help that, for me, Winter is the least likable main character in the robust cast. This book is the first occurrence of Meyer telling rather than showing, so the refrain that “all the Lunar people love their princess” falls flat. Winter is presented as rarely leaving the palace, and rumors run rampant that she’s going crazy, so how would the citizens be fond of her? The author also can’t seem to decide whether Winter in fact is losing her mind, or faking it to encourage her stepmother’s (the evil Queen) perception that she’s flaky and harmless. There are many written scenes which contradict each other, first indicating it’s all a trick, then detailing hallucinations Winter has out of nowhere. Before the halfway mark, Scarlet definitely feels Winter isn’t playing with a full deck, and Scarlet has been proven a reliable narrator. Then why does the Queen determine Winter should be killed, as she presents a threat to the evil throne? What threat? Being too corny?
The last third of Winter is where a lot of the premise fell apart for me. I really enjoyed the story, and the characters, until then, and the introduction of new narrators and subplots didn’t throw me off. But the turn taken around page 400 of Winter (yes, it’s an astoundingly long book) revels far too much in Hunger Games-like sentiment, the plan of fostering a revolution to overthrow an unjust leader… Which was, quite honestly, totally unnecessary in this monarchy-based universe.
Yes, Levana is quite evil, and guilty of many reprehensible crimes, and should be removed from power. But, because she’s a queen, you don’t have to establish a citizens’ rebellion — especially since the Emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth on Earth finds the lost princess of Luna, and can legitimately invade the moon with an army and someone else with a claim to the throne. All the chapter after chapter of subterfuge and falling into danger and getting captured and risking innocent civilian lives is just…dumb, and it sends the last book off the rails for me.
It also means that valuable dozens of pages spent on rejecting Suzanne Collins’ nihilism (not sorry) were wasted, when there was so much backstory on the Lunar royal family we needed to get. It’s never once mentioned who the father was of the lost princess, what happened to Levana’s sister (other than she died in suspicious circumstances), why no one on Earth ever tried to overthrow Levana… The reasons that Earthens and Lunars don’t really trust each other are vaguely suggested, never cemented, and there are so many pieces regarding this history that were underdeveloped, and getting more information on that would’ve been a much more interesting finale.
And so, I finished The Lunar Chronicles with a bittersweet taste; I’d still recommend it to others, but I’m not sure I’ll re-read it. I do appreciate what it did for the genre of crossover fairytale retellings, but I’m not inspired to read any more of the category. Despite stretching the writing of Winter out to 800 pages, Meyer left a lot of loose ends for her character arcs; hints at a sequel are provided in spades, but the very last page literally says, “And they all lived happily ever after.”
I am aware there’s a graphic novel (called Wires and Nerve) that does follow the further adventures of Cinder and Kai, Scarlet and Wolf, Cress and Thorne, Winter and Jacin. But I highly doubt I’ll ever read it, since graphic novels are a struggle for me; and I have to say, leaping from one format to another to tell the same story seems…a bit convoluted?
Besides, as we all know, there are plenty of other books already on my TBR.