While some people groan and rant any time a beloved franchise is changed by a writer or director to fit their vision, there are a number of reasons I love a good reimagining. Perhaps the original wasn’t all that deep to begin with, and adding some depth to it is long overdue. Or maybe it takes an established idea and turns it on its head. Or perhaps the original has outdated values and simply needs a fresh approach to stay relevant.
Cinder is perhaps all three of these things. Loosely based on Cinderella, this young adult novel has an interesting core concept: making Cinderella a science fiction story.
Actually, science fantasy is a more accurate category. If you’ve ever read fantasy stories that include all the right touches, such as swords, armor, and dragons, but don’t actually feel like it’s rooted in a real historical world, then you’ll have a sense of the science behind Cinder. It’s window dressing, giving a Blade Runner backdrop to an updated fairy tale.
And it is updated. A common complaint about Cinderella and other such stories has always been the powerlessness of the heroines. Meek, unassertive, sad, in need of rescue. While it’s pretty much expected for such things to be thrown out the window these days with female protagonists, Cinder does a good job of it, even justifying her relative powerlessness as well.
Linh Cinder is a cyborg in New Beijing, and as such is considered property under the guardianship of Linh Adri, and her two daughters, Pearl and Peony. She works as a mechanic in the local street market when one day Prince Kai (in disguise) comes in need of her services, needing a personal android of his repaired for secretive reasons.
New Beijing, and much of the world, is currently suffering from a terrible plague known as letumosis, and one of Cinder’s stepsisters soon contracts it. At this point Cinder is volunteered to be a test subject for a possible cure—essentially a death sentence—and in the process learns she’s more valuable than she ever realized.
If much of this doesn’t sound like Cinderella, well, I did say it was loosely based on the story. But it does hit all the key notes—powerless girl reduced to servant status, wicked stepmother, handsome prince, big ball that she’s told she can’t go to, but does in the end, and so on.
However, there’s a lot more going on, even beyond the confines of this book. Cinder is part of the Lunar Chronicles, each of which features a different fairy tale character similarly reimagined, and each tying together in an overarching plot. Scarlet is about Little Red Riding Hood, while Cress is about Rapunzel, all leading up to Fairest and Winter, which are based off Snow White.
You could call them The League of Extraordinary Princesses.
As mentioned, the “science” of this series is not to be looked at too closely. It’s just a veneer for what is still essentially a fairy tale, albeit one that is more complex than its source material. Still, I can’t help but cringe when things like “World War IV” is mentioned—sure it helps explain why the world has been reshaped into continent-spanning kingdoms, but in my opinion there is something essentially cheesy sounding about any World War that comes after III, and it also feels like it’s trying to connect itself with our reality, something the author would have been better off avoiding.
The storytelling itself, while firmly in the YA category, has a lot going for it. It’s interesting that the story takes place in China, since the earliest versions of the Cinderella tale actually come from China in the 9th century. But it also broadens the scope of the series as well, which might have all remained Euro-centric in another writer’s hands.
The relationship between the stepsisters is more involved (Cinder is actually friends with Peony), and the painful emotional effect Peony getting sick has on Adri and Pearl is evident. Unlike the fairy tale where they are simply wicked, you wish there could be some kind of understanding reached, but it is not to be. Because of how cyborgs are looked down upon in general, it’s as much a failing of society as it is their own.
Likewise, they give the relationship between Cinder and the Prince a chance to develop, but that’s to be expected in any modern retelling. And the Prince has his own set of problems in trying to forge a peace accord with the Queen of Luna, who has her eyes set on marrying Kai and becoming Empress of Earth.
While I might not be the target audience for the series, I can always appreciate it when somebody tries to put a fresh spin on an old idea, as long as they do it right. Overall, I’d say Cinder does just that.
Originally Published in KODT #237