Life in a Glasshouse: Cinder by Marissa Meyer

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I'm immortally interested in cultural/literary deconstructions, feminism, anti-racism, South Korea, Supernatural, Sherlock Holmes, Hayao Miyazaki, Diana Wynne Jones, food (including but not limited to maple butter, tomatoes, and toast), fairy tales, parentheses, paper airplanes, films and books.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

A forbidden romance. A deadly plague. Earth’s fate hinges on one girl... 

Cinder, a gifted mechanic in New Beijing, is also a cyborg. She’s reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s sudden illness. But when her life becomes entwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she finds herself at the centre of a violent struggle between the desires of an evil queen—and a dangerous temptation. 

Cinder is caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal. Now she must uncover secrets about her mysterious past in order to protect Earth’s future.*

Cinder is yet again another title I had no doubt I'd enjoy. With a disabled main character and a Chinese-influenced setting, it had the makings of a rather groundbreaking YA (in my books). Unfortunately, the book felt so uninspired I reached about midway before I began skimming. Personally, it seemed like Meyer, who had claimed inspiration from Sailor Moon, drew more than inspiration from the famed anime and manga. By the introduction of the Lunar planet, I already had every plot line predicted. Spoilers: With the exception of Peony's death. That packed a magnificent punch. Looking back, though, I'd say that the result of my rating is more me than the book itself.

Cinder was a flawed character who wasn't aware of her flaws. Many times, she'd lament her situation and tell us of her complexes and shortcomings, but in reality, she was largely outspoken. Because of this, I couldn't help but find her modesty false. Although Cinder was brought to New Beijing at the age of eleven, she was raised for five years in a culture that both holds extreme prejudice for cyborgs and respect for their elders. I found it odd that someone who had been raised in this would be so marginally affected. The 38% non-human tidbit was such an obvious hook. In regards to her disability, for someone who had lived eleven of her sixteen years with limbs, she rarely spoke about missing them or the ramifications of having them. Things like her social situation and her stepmother felt deemed far more worthy to complain about than going further into the psychological effects of having your limbs replaced.

I found a lack in exploration of the subject odd too. What about people who lose their limbs without choice as well? If they had the money, did they replace them in this culture or did they just say no? Was it seen as honorable to die instead of receive metal parts? What about prosthetic parts? What led everything to be changed from today where prosthetic limbs are mostly seen as a godsend?

It was also irritating that the whole 38% is only in relation to if someone finds out. The fear is not even that pervasive. It's not a habit for Cinder to secure her clothing. She didn't have any hooks that keep her clothes from sliding it up or boots to tuck her pants in. As a mechanic, wouldn't she have thought of this? Or invented something that could have helped her? One of my main complaints is that she had zero fear or insecurity. It wasn't even fake bravado. It's just attitude. Cinder felt like a 21st century Western teenager transplanted into this new future.

This brings me to the largest reason for my disappointment in Cinder: the setting. When Cinder had been announced as a book set in a futuristic Beijing, several book bloggers and reviewers felt excited at the fresh change in a genre dominated by American influence. But the most authentic thing about this book is the mention of honey buns. Here is a list of all the things Cinder does wrong in that respect:

1. The name New Beijing is wrong. If this city had been colonized by an anglophone country, it would make sense but as it's not, why would there be 'New'? If this book is meant to be read as though it was entirely in Chinese and merely translated (as its citizens' names denote), why wouldn't Beijing be New North Capital? Or a Hunger-Games-esque New Capitol? Why couldn't it be Xin Beijing**?

2. The names in the book are incredibly diverse. We have Cinder, Adri, Peony, Pearl, Kai, Iko, etc. Neither signify a particular homogeneous culture (Iko and Kai are predominantly Japanese, although Kai's does show up in Hawaiian lineage - I've no idea where Adri comes from). I could excuse Kai if it was a tradition or nickname we saw implented the same as his father, but that wasn't shown at all, so there's that.

3. The politics were extremely weak in this book. Kai, whose every word bled green and immature, was somehow able to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. There was a moment in which he met the Lunar diplomat going to see the emperor and was basically like "I don't like you kthxbye". I don't have much experience with Chinese imperial traditions, but the fact that their politics was reduced to the machinations of some eighteen-year-old made me cringe. There were no political parties, no counsellors or advisors, no one attempting to lead our brand new emperor astride. It was so very Western.

4. None of the clothing held any Chinese distinction. All the gowns Peony and Pearl wore were ballgowns similar to ones you could see in Downton Abbey.

5. I read a survey a while back that a good more than half of China's population had no religious affiliation. Confucism has a huge impact on the culture, but outright identification with Buddhism and Christianity isn't high prioritization. This is why the thought of a Buddha in the emperor's garden strikes me as just plain ridiculous. The fact that it was so dismissively described enraged me. There was no explanation as to why it was there - if the dying emperor was Buddhist, if the Buddha had always been there, if it was misguided Feng Shui. It felt like it was there simply because Buddhism and China are stereotyped together in Western media, which as I've proved is factually wrong.

6.. The reactions to Kai had me doubt his position. While Cinder called him Your Majesty, her dialog continued as informal as beforehand and she showed none of the social norms of avoiding eye contact or bowing at a certain degree. It was even more frustrating as her third encounter with the prince had her bowing deeply - because they were somewhere public. I understood that the publicized culture of New Beijing was to mirror our own, but I could honestly not picture anything distinctly Chinese about Kai or his position.

The fact is, Meyer's New Beijing is simple cultural appropriation. When one can transplant every person, every plot point and the setting to England, it's clear that this "Chinese influence" was an afterthought.

The futuristic aspect also seems suspiciously like an afterthought. The world could be easily our own with the addition of hover cars and the commercialization and distribution of androids. There are already robotic prosthetics, and the tablets that Peony carries around is frighteningly similar to the iPad. They even speak of apps. To be honest, China and Japan are already today close to this. It makes no sense that there are no other technological advances outside these few frameworks.

Continuing character-wise, Kai did not have one flaw. To be honest, he felt more android-like than Iko, my favorite character. He commented within his viewpoint chapter that he felt an imposter and I felt like exclaiming 'Yes!' Cinder needed to eliminate him and set out to find the real prince! But I did find this exchange amusing.

"But, maybe you would change your mind? Because I am, you know."
"The prince."
"Not bragging," he said quickly. "Just a fact."

The text enforced Cinder's entitlement issues as Right. This could have be interesting, if these issues were dealt with as it's apparently in "their" bloodline to be constantly in their Terrible Twos. Spoilers: By bloodline, I mean, Lunar-wise. However, it was glossed over in favor of describing all women as inferior to Cinder. Adri's always described as old. Peony as frivolous. Iko as a bit dim. Pearl as bitchy. Levana as sacchrine and manipulative.

It became tiring to read Cinder's viewpoint when this was constantly being screamed. That said, the extra viewpoints felt entirely superfluous, Dr. Eland's could have been exchanged for more suspense and mystery. Kai's only seemed to demonstrate how ridiculous and unfit this imperial system was. The writing in general felt extremely juvenile. Early in the book, there was an info dump the size of a page that facilitated my plot predictions. This only furthered my disappointment. I could imagine how much more enjoyable this book could have been - cultural appropriation aside - had that info dump simply been edited out.

The plague plot was the most fascinating aspect (as was its name, which I can't quite remember right now), in its debut stages, and while most of the writing was more suited for MG audiences, the descriptions were just eerie. That being said, I will check out the sequel because I have a feeling there won't be as much inspiration from anything other than your run-of-the-mill fairytales and that leaves room for much more potential.

Rating: 2/5

(Those who have watched/remember Sailor Moon tread carefully.)

*Taken from Goodreads.
** Someone who's fluent Mandarin please correct me.

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