Welcome back to the Reading Rec series, where I rant about my favorite books and talk about how reading and analyzing them can make us better writers! This month, I’m covering tropes and how to adapt them to different stories, and there’s no better genre for this than folktales. Because these stories are so ingrained in pop culture, everyone already knows the main characters, plot beats, and motifs, which makes them perfect to translate into retellings. Not only does this series have a great premise, it also has great cover design. Even if you’ve never read this series, you can guess the main character of each book.
This article will focus on the first book, Cinder, and will contain spoilers. At first, I tried to write this article by explaining the tropes out of context, but in the end they were worked into the plot so well that it was impossible. These books are fairly predictable in terms of overall plot by nature of being fairy tale retellings, but there are some interesting twists within the way they connect, so proceed at your own discretion if you’d like to read this series with a fresh view. Content Warnings for plague, fire/burns, mind-control, and fantasy racism. Rereading these books in 2021 is really interesting, because while they don’t predict every aspect of a pandemic, they still hold up in a lot of ways and the story and characters are as interesting as ever. I meant to skim the story to find the certain quotes I wanted to use, but ended up sitting down and reading the whole book in an afternoon!
To start, the protagonist’s name is a double play on words: she’s a cyborg mechanic Cinderella. Her story keeps the iconic tropes of the original – she’s lost her father and does dirty hard work to support the lifestyle of her stepmother and two sisters. The changes to the science fiction world of Third Age Earth make sense with the original character: Cinderella got her name by being covered in cinders from sleeping next to a fire. Cinder got her name after losing her limbs in a fire. The opening scene shows her at her market booth, replacing her too-small prosthetic foot. It also introduces us to a world that doesn’t bode particular favor towards cyborgs with the line, “It’s not like wires are contagious.”
She’s interrupted from her work when none other than Prince Kaito appears in disguise, asking for help with a malfunctioning android. Retrieving information from it is a matter of national security for futuristic China, and he’s heard that Linh Cinder is one of the best mechanics in the city. She gladly takes on the assignment, but not long after the prince leaves, the market is shut down. Another shopkeeper across the market discovers she’s infected with Letumosis. The readers learn that the plague has been slowly spreading around earth for 12 years, and that those who catch it rarely survive more than a week. (this also re-contextualizes the “wires aren’t contagious” line above when the reader learns later that Cinder has a natural immunity to Letumosis, but not because she’s a cyborg.)
Cinder gets back to her apartment safely, where she finds her step-sisters, Peony and Pearl, being fitted for ball gowns. Their mother, Adri, berates Cinder and tells her to fix their hover so they have a ride to the ball later that week, and so she leaves again with their android, Iko, and Peony to go scavenge for parts at the junkyard. While there, the girls find a wrecked car, which Cinder begins fixing despite Iko’s claim that it “looks like a rotten pumpkin.”
They chat about the meeting with the Prince under the full moon, Peony fangirls, and Cinder has a chance to reflect on the Lunars and their place in the current politics. The Emperor is ill, and the Lunar tyrant queen, Levana, wants to pursue a marriage alliance with their kingdom. The reader also gets to learn that after years of separation from Earth during the 4th world war, Lunars developed the ability to mind-control others and project glamours that disguise their true appearance. (a scientific explanation is given for this, but it’s casually referred to as magic.) Naturally, this makes Earthens distrustful of the race as a whole, but the queen is a special type of manipulative and ruthless. She murdered her sister and niece to take the throne, scarred her stepdaughter for being too beautiful without glamour, and brainwashes her citizens into unconditional loyalty. Since Lunars rely on glamours for power, they also hate mirrors since they can’t be tricked – which becomes an interesting subversion to the “mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all” trope. Cinder is afraid she might try to take advantage of Kai when he has a ball later in the week to look for a wife. Though the role of a magical evil queen isn’t relevant to the original Cinderella story, having a common foe creates a way to connect the other unrelated fairytales that inspired the series.
The Lunar threat is still a far-off fear to Cinder however, as she’s more concerned with getting away from her step-mother. She’s scheming on how to fix the car when she notices a Letumosis rash on Peony’s shoulder. While her sister is taken to the quarantines, Cinder is taken to the palace labs as a test-subject in the cyborg draft – turned in as a “volunteer” by Adri after she learned what happened. The head researcher, Dr Erland tests her for the disease, but when her blood comes back negative, even after being injected with a strain, he concludes that she has natural immunity to the virus because she’s really Lunar. This makes her a valuable subject, and she voluntarily (for real this time) agrees to continue help with testing in the hopes of making an antidote for her sister.
This double association with the palace throws her into the increasingly twisted political schemes. In the space of a few days, Kai’s father dies from the disease and he becomes emperor. He asks her to the ball to help avoid Levana who’s now visiting Earth to take advantage of the situation and she declines. Levana reveals that she has an antidote but won’t give it to Earth unless Kai capitulates to her demands, and Adri confiscates Cinder’s new prosthetic foot, forcing her to use the busted too-small one. Cinder fixes the car and the broken android, which tells her that Princess Selene, the true heir to the Lunar throne, might still be alive. She also finds a direct communication link to a Lunar girl who is trapped on a satellite. This long-haired hacker tells her about the Queen’s plans, so Cinder uses her getaway car to rush to the ball and warn Kai.
Unfortunately, Cinder doesn’t have time for a fairytale dance scene, since she finds herself in the sights of Queen Levana – both under her glamour, and at the wrong end of a pistol. When our heroine escapes, she leaves behind the busted, too-small foot, which Kai saves. She’s quickly found and brought back to prison, but receives one last visit from Dr. Erland before she’s to be brought back to Luna for execution. He gets to her by brainwashing the guards and reveals not only that he’s also an escaped Lunar, but that she is the lost Princess Selene. He gives her a new prosthetic with tools to break out, and tells her that she’s their only hope.
With this perfect sequel setup, the story also introduces several other classic fairytale tropes: the long haired-hacker stuck on a satellite is our Space Rapunzel, and the heroine of Cress. Levana the Evil Magic Queen becomes the antagonist both for Winter (Snow White) and for Cinder, who fits the “Rightful Ruler Returns” trope. Though it’s not part of the traditional Cinderella story, it has its precedent in characters like King Arthur and Aragon. The plot beats of the original story are preserved, but the execution is subverted using science fiction tropes: in a world of hovers, the pumpkin that becomes a coach is an old-fashioned car. Instead of fairy or animal helpers, Cinder befriends androids. Rather than losing a glass slipper, she looses the whole metal foot.
In later books, we meet Scarlet – the redhead with a red hoodie, who fights with wolves to rescue her grandmother, and falls in love with a beast. We meet Thorne – the flirty rascal who helps Cinder escape jail, saves Cress, and briefly looses his sight in the process. Princess Winter is kindhearted and beloved by the Lunars for not following in her Levana’s example. She’s tricked into eating laced apple candies that put her into a coma, and her Prince Charming is actually a royal guard called Jacin. He’s a jerk with a heart of gold who’s fiercely loyal to Princess Winter and risks everything to bring her an antidote. Each character reflects the original in a new interesting way, and their stories fit together into a cohesive narrative. This series brings together several types of tropes, and several kingdoms, for a happily ever after that they all deserve.
Have you read the Lunar Chronicles? What are your favorite adaptations? Let me know! I’d love to check them out, and feature them in a later post. Next week, I’ll share a scene from runaways that adapts one of my favorite tropes – The Test of Character. I’m super excited to share another excerpt from this story! Until then, happy reading 🙂