IT'S FASHIONABLE NOWADAYS to put a new spin on old fairy tales. Cinderella is one of the perennial favorites, and the reasons for this are worth exploring. While many versions are modest, domestic tales in which a girl’s highest aspiration is marriage, others expand the scope, increase the stakes, and empower the heroine. They succeed by using the strengths of the story, not its weaknesses. Marissa Meyer’s Cinder is just such a story.
Cinderella draws much of its power from the underlying trope of “The Prince in Waiting” or “Chosen One.” No matter how lowly or disenfranchised, the hero has hidden gifts or a royal heritage, and a magnificent destiny. Popular incarnations of this principle range from King Arthur to Luke Skywalker to Harry Potter. (Think about it: Kid wearing ragged clothing lives in a cupboard under the stairs, and is tyrannized by his older cousin and forced to work as a servant.)
The feminine versions of these stories aim considerably lower. Until recently, girls did not get to pull a sword from a stone or save the galaxy from an evil empire, let alone defeat the Dark Lord in single combat. The tales conveyed different cultural messages for girls, ones that embodied the mores of the time (17th century) in which the popular versions were published: you can't do anything to save yourself from a horrible, abusive situation. You have to wait – sweetly and patiently – for someone else to rescue you. "Rescue" entails marriage to someone you've barely met, who loves you only for how you look when you're all dressed up.
When we first meet Meyer’s Cinder, she is slaving away as a computer mechanic, and wearing cast-off, ill-fitting parts (because she herself is a half-machine cyborg), while her stepsisters prepare to attend the royal ball. Smart and savvy, she contends not only with the abuse and exploitation of her adoptive family, but the rampant prejudice against cyborgs. In this future, political boundaries have been redrawn so that Cinder lives not in fairy tale land but rather in a dystopic incarnation of China. The Moon has been colonized and is now ruled by an evil telepathic queen (a female version of Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, only with the ability to make people think she's gorgeous) whose goal is to become Empress of China, which means marrying the Prince. But Cinder, like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, has some very special powers, even if she doesn't yet know what they are.
While Meyer’s Cinder diverges from Perrault’s Cinderella at the start, there are delightful nods to the original. (One detail I loved: the old gasoline-powered car in which Cinder plans to make her break for freedom is pumpkin-colored.) Cinder and Prince Kai meet when he brings his broken android to her booth at the open-air market (she's the best mechanic in the city), but he makes a pathetic botch of his disguise. Kai has good reason to hide his face. He's the drop-dead gorgeous super-rock-star teen idol Heir To The Throne. Every girl in China wants to be his date, including Cinder's stepsisters. Cinder has other things on her mind (a junker car to repair, an escape to plan), but she is not entirely indifferent to him. But how much of his allure is due to his good looks and power, and how much is his personality? Meyer deserves extra credit for showing us that while physical attraction isn't enough to warrant true love, none of us is immune to romantic dreams.
The plot spins in a new direction, however, when Cinder's younger stepsister (a sweet kid and Cinder’s best friend) comes down with a deadly, incurable plague. Suddenly the stakes escalate; Cinder must cope not only with her stepmother's greed and unreasonable restrictions, but with the impending death of someone she loves. At this point, the story soars above the classic Cinderella tale, which focuses on the fate of only one person. A series of leaps take us from the illness of Cinder's sister to the illness of the Emperor, Kai's father, and then to the deadly power struggle between the Moon and Earth. Cinder, caught up in it all, is no passive damsel. She’s tough, self-reliant, and resourceful. And she’s only beginning to discover her extraordinary talents.
When Cinderella finally appears at the ball, she's wearing a torn and grease-stained dress, and her robot foot – not a glass slipper – falls off. But she doesn't care because she's got a Prince to rescue and a world to save.
As for me, I'm cheering her on!