Cinder by Marissa Meyer. Read by Rebecca Soler.
Obviously, we know going into this story that it’s a Cinderella story. But the setting is changed to such a degree that how things are going to play out is much more in question than in a more straightforward fairy-tale novelization. Over a hundred years since the end of WW IV, Earth has consolidated down to a handful of large countries. Cinder, a teenage cyborg, lives in New Beijing, in the Eastern Commonwealth. The man who decided to take the bold step of adopting a despised cyborg died years ago, leaving Cinder in the very un-tender care of his wife. Cinder (trying hard to conceal that she’s a cyborg under her grease-stained cargo pants) supports her step-family by working as a mechanic from a tiny booth in the market square, accompanied by a cute and friendly little droid named Aiko. The very first day that we meet her, she’s visited by Prince Kai, heir to the Emperor’s Throne, who has a faulty tutor droid he wants repaired. Though Cinder’s never been the type to drool over handsome celebrities, she can’t help falling for Kai in person. Then, almost immediately, a vendor across the square screams as the blue spots of deadly letemosis appear on her. She’s airlifted from the spot; everyone visible is tested and evacuated. Back home, stepmother Audrey is busy getting her daughters, Pearl and Peony, ready for the annual ball (still a few weeks off) and insists that Cinder drop everything to fix the family hover so they can take it. Peony is the nice sister here, and she goes off to the dump with Cinder to help her look for the needed parts. Everything goes wrong when Peony shows signs of the plague and is taken away straight from the dump. Audrey is so enraged that Cinder isn’t ill as well that she volunteers her for the ongoing letemosis research program, always done on cyborgs since cyborgs aren’t considered real humans. This is where things get really interesting.
Meanwhile, we’re also hearing about Prince Kai’s point of view. His father, the Emperor, also has letemosis, and while it will still be fatal for him, at least he isn’t quarantined where his family can’t see him. For years, the Emperor has been trying to enter in peace agreements with the Lunar Queen, Lavanna. Lunars used to be humans, but in centuries on Luna developed mind control and the ability to make themselves look beautiful to others, which then increases their powers. Queen Lavanna used ruthless means to come to power, including setting her three-year-old niece’s bedroom on fire some 13 years ago, and doesn’t treat her subjects any better than you’d expect with that kind of attitude towards power. Prince Kai knows that a marriage alliance is Earth’s best hope, but is putting secret resources into seeing if he can find the princess, rumored to have escaped to earth from the burning bedroom. All through these events, Cinder and Kai bump into each other more than one would think normally possible, and have trouble not thinking about each other in between times. Rebecca Soler’s voice does well for Cinder and Dr. Erlund, the letemosis research doctor, but I found it hard to distinguish between Kai and Cinder.
There were some little things that bothered me with Cinder. Kai and Cinder are both impetuous teenagers, getting angry easily and mouthing off inappropriately. I get this in Cinder, who’s had a lifetime of neglect and built up a lot of resentment. I don’t quite buy it in a prince, though teenage readers might not have this same issue with him. The Big Reveal came too close to the end for me, especially since it seemed pretty obvious from much earlier in the story. The lunar powers never worked out quite to my satisfaction. It seems that the deal is you use them, unethically manipulating the people around you, or you don’t use them and go crazy from the suppressed powers. While there ought to be some ethical compromise, I never really felt that this worked out well. The cyborg issue was a little confusing – why would people having an artificial limb or two no longer be considered real people? But, Meyer did well with looking thoughtfully at the issues of prejudice surrounding both cyborgs and Lunars. Fair warning: this is one of those first-in-a-series books that has a perfunctory ending with lots of loose plot ends. Even with all that, I really liked Cinder and Kai and got absorbed with their problems. I can see why this has been a big hit, and will be keeping my eye out for the sequels.