Five Stars out of Five [GoodReads: “It Was Amazing”]
It’s rare that a book series comes along with the power to attract my attention and envelope my imagination. To date, the only series that have done so are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, and the Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart. In the case of most series, I tend to peruse the first book but usually won’t bother exploring subsequent entries. The reasons for this are varied but the most common one is that the plot and/or characters aren’t strong enough to compel me to venture on, especially to commit to a multi-book story arc. That being said, when I first read Cinder a few years ago, I was immediately hooked and knew I had stumbled upon a new series that actually commanded my interest and investment for the long haul. Hence, the Lunar Chronicles is now among my most-loved book series.
The stories comprising the Lunar Chronicles are an innovative hybrid of fairy tale retellings and science fiction space opera (though seeing as the action only occurs on either the Earth or the Moon, I use the term “space” here loosely). At first glance, this sounds like an odd, unworkable combination due to each genre’s inherent differences. However, what Meyers offers is a unique spin on some familiar fairy tales that don’t wax as paint-by-numbers or fill-in-the-blanks stories. Instead, she retains the basic skeleton of each tale, then grafts new skin and characters upon it, creating a series that is engaging and fresh.
There are four novels and one novella that make up the Lunar Chronicles (I am excluding the numerous short stories and the two graphic novels for the sake of simplicity): Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter with Fairest serving as a prequel novella to Cinder. As their titles imply, each book uses a classic fairy tale as its basis: Cinder is a retelling of Cinderella, Scarlet is a revamped Little Red Riding Hood, Cress is a Rapunzel re-imagining, and Winter and Fairest both borrow from Snow White.
Plot-wise, the series possesses a large scope that involves a conflict between the various unified nations of Earth and the Lunar throne, occupied by the sinister Levana. At the epicenter of the political turmoil is a seemingly unimportant cyborg mechanic named Cinder who quickly discovers that she has a far greater part to play in the story at large. Joining her in time are Scarlet Benoit, who is searching for her missing grandmother; Wolf, a rugged street fighter who is more than he seems; Cress, a satellite-bound foundling forced to serve as a hacker for the Lunar government; Carswell Thorne, a hotshot pilot with a knack for getting into trouble as well as getting out of tight jams; Princess Winter, the seemingly insane stepdaughter of Queen Levana; and Prince Kai, ruler of the Eastern Commonwealth, one of Earth’s conjoined nations.
As one can probably tell, the Lunar Chronicles sports an expansive cast, yet each novel works to not only introduce its characters in their novel-by-novel micro-plots but also tie them into the series’ overarching macro-plot plot involving Cinder and her true identity/nature. This careful management of plots, subplots, and characters is achieved through a delicate blend of action and character development that work together to maintain each book’s and the series’ momentum. Even if the fairy tale elements were removed, the series would still stand as a solid work of modern space opera.
Much like traditional space opera, the focus of the Lunar Chronicles is not (as one might expect from a young adult series) on cliched love triangles or petty teenage dramas. Instead, its primary tone is one of robust adventure that moves like a literary EKG with undulating highs of action, peril, and suspense and lows of character growth moments and exposition. Similarly, the series places an emphasis on the threat of warfare between Earth and the Moon, offers up clean romance, displays risk-taking among all of the characters, and introduces some well-placed melodrama for the sake of high adventure . Again, while most of the action is confined to Earth (with the exception of Winter), it’s not exactly a fair fight as the Lunar government has some technological and biological advantages over the people of Earth. Hence, while perhaps not a space opera in the strictest sense of the word, it seems appropriate to call the Lunar Chronicles a space opera-lite tale.
Furthermore, its sense of depth and focus on character dynamics and action as opposed to the usual YA tropes gives it an edge that propels it into a category of stellar (pun intended) YA sci-fi. Yet another attribute in this series’ favor is that it never becomes a play-by-play retelling of its respective fairy tales, meaning there is no “this-equals-that” formula at work. Granted, there are allusions to the original tales, such as a robotic foot in place of a glass slipper and apple candies instead of a poisoned apple, but these inclusions are subtle and clever rather than overt and trying too hard to be charming or call attention to their fairy tale counterparts. Overall, Meyer uses her chosen fairy tales as a jumping off point before crafting a brand new futuristic world that comes across as very believable and doesn’t feel overwrought.
Cinder serves as a solid series opener, introducing readers to the titular heroine who, much like Cinderella, is the unwanted ward of her stepmother and step-sisters. However, what makes Cinder unique is that she is a cyborg, a trait that makes her undesirable in both her family and society at large. But Cinder’s small world quickly enlarges when she finds herself at the crux of a dire plan to save the population of the Eastern Commonwealth from a deadly Lunar disease. To make matters worse, Queen Levana has come to propose marriage to young Emperor Kai, a political move that reeks of ulterior motives. As such, the novel balances character development – chiefly Cinder’s evolution – with political intrigue and suspense. This novel does wrap up on a rather open-ended note but it effectively sets the stage for the second novel, Scarlet.
Out of the series, Scarlet is my “least” favorite (but I use that term loosely) simply because there seems to be more character down time when compared to the other entries, but it is by no means sluggish or weak. Here, we’re introduced to a new set of soon-to-be main characters, Scarlet Benoit and Wolf. The two meet in a rather innocuous way but soon become comrades on the run as Scarlet is desperate to locate her missing grandmother and Wolf is forced to confront his own demons. In time, Cinder and a few other characters from the first installment are added to the mix. Normally when it comes to novels with large casts, I find myself disconnected due to all of the persons to keep track of. But Meyer creates a nicely balanced narrative that inches the characters closer to each other as their respective plot lines intersect.
The third novel, Cress, has the daunting task of trying to juggle all of the current characters’ story arcs while developing one more, this one involving Cress, a Lunar hacker hoping to escape her confinement and meet heartthrob American pilot, Carswell Thorne, whom she admires from afar. Thorne proves to be more than a comic foil character, which is what I feared he might become upon his introduction in Scarlet. In this novel, we’re given an intriguing “man behind the mask”-type of narrative where subtle commentary about the nature of celebrity is briefly explored. Cress, without going into specifics, is a sheltered young lady who spends her time, among other things, mooning over Thorne. But all she knows is what she has read in the news and tabloid feeds. Once she meets the man himself, she is a bit underwhelmed. But their pairing is the start of a beautiful friendship that evolves into something more. In terms of character plots, Cress is as knotty as the titular character’s hair; however, it all comes together brilliantly. The suspense and action in this novel essentially takes everything I loved about Cinder and amplifies it.
In a bit of a deviation, Fairest was released prior to the series’ final book. However, even though it is a novella (and a prequel) it is by no means less important. The reason I include it among the series’ novels is that it serves as a baseline for the chief antagonist, Queen Levana. Until now, Levana is a good villain but harbors mysterious aspects about her that are never fully explained. Similarly, her personal motivations, aside from her overt power plays, are also kept under wraps. But all of that changes in Fairest where we see Levana’s origins and learn why she behaves and believes as she does. (For example, in the series we learn that Levana hates mirrors though we’re never told why; but in the novella, we learn the reason behind her revulsion.) Even though she is the villain, she becomes strongly sympathetic here (albeit not enough for readers to condone her actions, but they do make some sense in context). Hence, Fairest serves as a great look into the making of the series’ villain, and I would strongly encourage readers to peruse it before diving into Cinder as it sheds light on Levana’s driving passions.
Winter, the largest book of the series, works to close everything out with much aplomb as all of the major characters are swept up into the macro-conflict ensnaring the Earth and the Moon and individual micro-conflicts. Much like in Cress, the characters are initially scattered, each with their own subplots, yet everything comes together to form a cohesive story. Here, we are introduced to the final new character pairing of Princess Winter and her bodyguard, Jacin. Winter steals the show with her humility, compassion, and cleverness. Rather than serve as the cliched beautiful princess who melts everyone’s hearts, Winter has personal scars (both literally and figuratively) and she is presumed to be mentally unstable. She fits in perfectly with the series’ other heroines, all of whom are not cookie cutter characters but are unique, smart, and flawed individuals. To call Winter satisfying would be an understatement as it serves as the crown with which to top a well-crafted, entertaining, engaging series.
Overall, the Lunar Chronicles is a fantastic epic sci-fi series that is redolent of classic space opera, only in this case it’s sprinkled with fairy tale inspirations. It presents complex characters; serpentine plots; riveting action; and clean, swoon-worthy romance that at times can remind me of Golden Age science fiction. As the books themselves increase in page count, each character is given his or her due and is allowed to shine, both as individuals and as members of a group of unlikely heroes in a tale that happens once upon a future but concludes with a rousing happy ever after.
Language – Sporadic PG-level profanities are uttered throughout the series, but such instances are few and far between.
Violence – Most of the violence occurs in scenes of hand-to-hand combat where characters fight either with weapons or under the influence of Lunar mind control. Nothing ever turns graphic or gory as most scenes of carnage (such as when a genetically engineered army attacks several cities on Earth) are never described in detail. Lunars can telepathically manipulate others and most instances of this involve forcing a person to commit a violent act against their will. There is talk of characters being murdered (usually off-page). A Moon-based virus called letumosis attacks suddenly and kills quickly. Scenes where victims discover they are infected and are transported to quarantine, as well as scenes in the quarantine centers, are frightening on a psychological level but are non-graphic. There is also an undercurrent of tension between characters and many characters find themselves in perilous situations at times. Characters breath murderous threats, physically threaten others, and there is implied (non-sexual) violence against children, but nothing ever becomes graphic or uncomfortable to read.
Sexual Content – None in terms of sex scenes or sexual content. Some girls talk of flirting with Prince Kai, who is seen as a heartthrob but he doesn’t display a playboy persona. Cinder’s robot companion comments about a palace robot possibly having seen the prince naked but nothing further is speculated. Characters couple up and kiss but nothing ever goes further. Fairest contains the most suggestive content of the series but it’s sporadic and presently vaguely. Monogamy isn’t practiced among Lunars and it’s common knowledge for people to have lovers, so this gets mentioned in some characters’ conversations. However, nothing explicit is ever discussed or shown in terms of these loose relationships.