Friday, June 8, 2012

CINDER and the Triumphant Return of PROJECT CINDERELLA!

Holy mackerel, I almost forgot about Project Cinderella! My writing buddy Em Lord mentioned in passing that she was reading CINDER by Marissa Meyer, and I kind of shrugged at first, until I remembered that Em has impeccable taste and I shouldn't be so snobby about seemingly 'girly' stories.

I read it. I liked it. It followed me around for several reasons we'll get in to later. But I must ask you: If the main character of this story had not been named "Cinder" would you still have identified this as a Cinderella story?

THE BASICS

In an earlier Project Cinderella post, I broke down your Basic Cinderella story. Let's go through the checklist for CINDER:
* Kind young woman oppressed/abused by family (not blood related) -- CHECK.
* Charming Prince, looking for a wife, hosts a party -- SORT OF CHECK (It's more complicated than that, but there is a fancy dance, and the Prince's rapidly concluding bachelorhood is a factor.)
* Step-family cruelly prevents Cindy from attending the ball -- CHECK.
* Fairy Godmother, pumpkin, mice, rags-to-riches transformation including beautiful gown -- NOPE (though Cinder does work on an old orange car, probably better identified as a lemon)
* Fairytale magic that expires at midnight -- NOPE
* A trademark Cinderella abandoned shoe -- NOT REALLY
* And, last but not least, the Happily Ever After -- (CINDER is the first of a 4-part series, but I'm guessing we'll get there eventually.)

On the surface it does have some of the basic Cinderella elements, but the Cinderella stuff is rather secondary to a bigger world. In the original fairytale, the story all revolves around Cindy - we feel sorry for her, we root for her, we want her to improve her circumstances. We don't usually think a lot about what else is going on in the rest of the Kingdom. CINDER shows us a much richer world through a wide-angle lens, and it's the richness of the world building that keeps you turning pages, even when the plot is easily predictable.

THE SPECIFICS

CINDER is an example of an okay idea brilliantly executed. It wasn't the what, it was the how. I knew what was going to happen. The "plot twist" is a little too obvious, if I'm honest - almost to the point of eye-roll. But the amazing thing is that it doesn't matter. You know exactly what's going to happen, and you still can't put it down. Time and time again we see examples of this and I never cease to be impressed by it. It's not the what, it's the how.

And now for a few definitions:
* A person is a human.
* An android is a robot.
* A cyborg is a human with robot parts.

The character Cinder is a cyborg. As a result I spent the whole time thinking: "Gosh it's awful that she's has to suffer being part machine, geez it would be awesome to be part machine." Because of her machine integration, she's has access to all of this extra-sensory information. She gets a little warning light when someone is lying to her. She can access the internets just using her retina without anyone realizing what she's doing. And, to top it all off, she's a gifted mechanic, so she can fix her robot pieces if she breaks.

This is where the "shoe" element comes in. One of her robot parts is her foot, and it does seem to become occasionally detached from her body - but, she never leaves it behind for anyone to find (and thank goodness, I don't think I could have handled that level of cheese, good job by you Marissa Meyer!). Well... I guess she kind of leaves it behind (in an out of sight out of mind way) when she gets a better one. So maybe I'm speaking too soon?

Cinder lives in a futuristic world where humans have fought a fourth World War and there are mean people living on the moon. We as readers get to experience some of the history of this world, painting with much broader brushstrokes than we usually get in a Cinderella kingdom. The story has an Eastern flavor, taking place in New Beijing with a lot of colorful bits of culture sprinkled in (see the Prince's coronation ceremony and all the traditions built in). And, best of all, we get a better appreciation for the Prince because we understand his role in ruling his country AND where his country fits in with the rest of the world.

BIGGER WORLD, BIGGER STAKES

When I wrote about Cinderella before, I noted that while the story has evolved over the years, the character of Cindy has not. The biggest changes have been with developing the character of the Prince. CINDER did an excellent job defining Prince Kai's wants and motives in the scope of his royal responsibilities.
* His country is being ravaged by an awful plague.
* His father has just caught the plague.
* There is no cure for the plague.
* He will soon be the Emperor.
* AND, if that wasn't enough, he spends the whole book teetering on the brink of war with the mean people who live on the moon (who caused the plague in the first place).

The story is told in 3rd person, bouncing between three different points of view - probably 70% Cinder, 29% Prince Kai, and 1% the Doctor guy, who I guess is the equivalent of the Fairy Godmother in that he seems to have all the answers (and at the end he does facilitate a sort of transformation for our Cindy). The ~29% Kai gives us the keys to his motives - we know what he wants, we know why he wants it. We love him for it. We understand what is at stake for him. It's nice, actually - I would contend that the Prince character grows and changes more than Cinder does.

Cinder's character is pretty much the same at the end as she was at the beginning. She's learned a lot of new facts about herself and about the world, but they didn't really change her character. She was always brave, always kind, always mentally tough - and I think she knew all of that about herself. Deeper in the story, she makes different decisions based on the facts at hand, but nothing fundamental about who she is has changed. The Prince, on the other hand, is forced into a lot of iffy situations that test him - at the end of it all, he's proven a few things to his people, his enemies, and himself. He has a better handle on who he is and what he can handle than he did when the story first started. His character shows more development, more growth.

The characters are good, but not great.
There's nothing wrong with the plot, but it at times walks the edge of corny in its predictability.
The strength of this book is in the world building - you want to stare at it like something visual, drink in the sights of Asian inspired Sci-Fi - the jade and pink blossoms and archaic paper fans. It's tactile, the metal and the silk and the hovercrafts and the netscreens. And did I mention the mean people who live on the moon? Yeah, they're shiny and they can do mind magic. I just want to stare at it. It would make a phenomenal graphic novel. Or Pixar movie.

BUT...

I would contend this is a David and Goliath story disguised as a Cinderella story.

Change the name of the main character from Cinder to Jennifer or Sarah. Take the shoe off the cover (which really, the shoe has nothing to do with anything anyway). Properly title her "step-mother" as her "guardian" or "foster mother" (and same with the "step-sisters").

All that stuff strikes me as mere marketing semantics - things that make readers say "ooo, Cinderella, I know what that means!" There's nothing wrong with that, but this story doesn't strike me as a true Cinderella retelling.

Cinder is a David, called upon to serve the crown with her mechanic abilities (much the way David was called upon to serve with his music). She ends up in a show-down with the leader of the mean moon people (her Goliath). There is no make-over transformation, but there are a few miracles. That's the big difference - Cinder stays Cinder, both inside and out. No magic dress, no glass slipper, nothing beautiful expires at midnight. At least, not yet.