Feiwel and Friends: 390 pp., $17.99, ages 12 and older
Few fairy tales have been as endlessly reimagined and riffed upon as Cinderella. The beloved rags-to-riches story of an oppressed beauty whose kind nature is rewarded with the rare happily-ever-after ending has been turned into countless movies, ballets, books — even an ice show. Now it’s getting a feminist, futuristic makeover in Marissa Meyer’s terrific young-adult debut, “Cinder,” the kickoff to the four-book Lunar Chronicles series that will incorporate fellow fairy-tale heroines Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Snow White.
It’s clear from the first page in this inventive and fast-moving novel that 16-year-old Cinder isn’t your average princess in the making. She’s a cyborg who, instead of a glass slipper, is outfitted with an uncomfortably small robotic foot that her abusive adoptive stepmother hasn’t prioritized for an upgrade. Cinder is the best mechanic in the sprawling metropolis of New Beijing and could easily jury-rig a replacement appendage, but she doesn’t have money for the parts because her stepmom has co-opted Cinder’s earnings to dress her two biological daughters in the finest gowns for an upcoming ball. Being a “wirehead,” as her stepsister says, Cinder isn’t allowed to attend the coronation-cum-dance-party of the handsome Prince Kai. The closest she’ll get is fixing her stepfamily’s hovercraft.
Or so it seems until an attractive 19-year-old shows up at Cinder’s workshop with a broken android whose repair is a matter of national security, he says. Despite the young man’s disguise in a gray hooded sweatshirt, his copper-brown eyes and tousled black hair immediately identify him as the prince even before the retina display scanner in Cinder’s eye confirms it or the cooling fan overheats in Cinder’s C3PO-esque robotic assistant.
As much as “Cinder” is inspired by the Cinderella fairy tale, it is also influenced by “Star Wars.” It’s an origin story that takes place in a world where robots and humans coexist. There isn’t only intergalactic contact but negotiation. Peace is tenuous. Disease is rampant. It isn’t clear exactly when the story takes place, but it’s after World War IV — after gasoline has become the domain of the elite and any working internal combustion vehicles have been sequestered to museums.
Similar to Luke Skywalker, Cinder doesn’t know a lot about her past. In fact, she can’t recall anything before age 11, when she was in a hovercraft accident that killed her parents and catapulted her through the windshield. If 32.6% of her human parts hadn’t been swapped for robotics, she would have died.
There’s a lot of detail paid to Cinder’s internal wiring, which was done with great care for reasons that become apparent as the book nears its close. Her external appearance doesn’t get nearly as much attention. Meyer describes Cinder as pretty, and her figure as stick straight and boyish, but she does so only once, preferring to draw attention to the robotic hand that’s always covered with a glove and Cinder’s heavy artificial leg.
It’s refreshing to read a novel whose heroine is appreciated for her internal parts — her personality and talents rather than her looks. When the prince asks Cinder to the ball and she questions his motivations, he says simply, “You’re easy to talk to.”
There’s a lot of intricate plot work that brings the prince and Cinder into fairly constant contact and keeps the romantic heart of this book pumping. Their unlikely and possibly ill-fated connection may have started with a broken android, but it’s heightened with subplots involving the plague, a potential invasion of the Earth by lunar forces, Cinder’s secret cyborg status and, of course, the ball.
Whether Cinder is headed for a happy ending like her fairy-tale inspiration is far from clear when she shows up at the prince’s palace in a grease-stained ball gown teetering on her undersized robotic foot, but readers will be cheering for this extremely likable cyborg and eagerly awaiting “Cinder’s” sequel.