Rubble You’ll Find in a Junkyard: A Review of Cinder

It’s great to see you, traveler! For today’s review, we’re surveying the sphere of Cinder, the first installment of the Lunar Chronicles Series by Marissa Meyer, the first novel I read in 2021 C.E. — and my first one-star review of the year. This ought to be a tendentious review!

Let’s do this!

Amazon.com: Cinder: Book One of the Lunar Chronicles (The Lunar Chronicles,  1) (9781250768889): Meyer, Marissa: Books

SYNOPSIS:

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless Lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl… Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg.

She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.


Rep: cluttered Asian-inspired world; Asian-coded characters

Content Warnings: blood and death; xenophobia and discrimination; non-consensual medical experimentation; needles; illness and plague; emotional abuse

tl;dr: Do I recommend this book?

Not really! (Thus my exclusion of promotional links!)


MY RATING: ★

Ralph In Danger - Meme Template and Creator

I know there’s a lot of love for Cinder — its aggregated 4.14-star rating on Goodreads is indicative of that. This review is by no means a charge on the author (though I do mention the author a few times below) or the series, nor do I intend to disparage your affection towards this book if you enjoyed it. It’s awesome if you like Cinder! I’m glad you do.

My opinions do not and should not reflect the opinions of others. With reference to my discussion of Asian cultures in this review, I do not and should represent Asian people’s feelings about this book. (Nor do I or should I represent Asian people’s feelings period!) These are simply my thoughts on the novel and my personal experience reading it, as well as a few other notes I had.

With that being said:

What a mess!

Before we tour the ruins in front of us, let’s discuss what I liked about Cinder.

  1. The cover is beautiful.
  2. I respect the unique concepts in Cinder.

1. I Love the Cover!

That one, up there — the one with a beautiful magenta background and gorgeously stylized features!

  • Cinder’s pensive profile intrigues me. She’s stunning! Her stance, with her prosthetic leg propped up and her other leg hanging to the side casually, reveals her character: she is a strong-willed individual who hides her intentions through nonchalance.
    • And that band-aid on her right calf is such an endearing, subtle detail.
  • The ship in the background, which references a transport that appears in the middle of the story, cuts through the sky’s full moon stunningly.
  • The strewn materials throughout Cinder’s makeshift junkyard frame the character in a pedestal, cupping her from below.

This cover, as well as the covers for the other books in the Lunar Chronicles series, was skillfully illustrated by the artist Tomer Hanuka. His graphic novels are at the top of my to-read list!

2. The Premise is Really Neat!

A sci-fi retelling of Cinderella? A whole series that brings new twists to the seminal fables of our childhoods? People on the moon with chrome spacecraft? That’s absolute fire! Cinder really piqued my interest.

I liked Linh Cinder as a character, too. She was clever and inquisitive — a great YA protagonist. Following her made the novel palatable. (Cyborgs are just awesome, too. I’ve got a soft spot for them!)

I have sung my scattered praises. Now it’s time to talk discourse!

What in the Worldbuilding?

The primary barrier that prevented me from enjoying this book fully (and giving it a higher rating) was its careless worldbuilding. Cinder presents a distant future in which the earth’s political structures have changed. The titular character lives in New Beijing, reminiscent of — er, the current Beijing, China.

New Beijing is located in the Eastern Commonwealth, an untidy amalgam of Asian cultures and traditions, ruled over by a single emperor. Here’s where things go sideways:

In Chapter 1, the novel mentions the surname “Nguyen,” which, though etymologically rooted in Chinese, is a Vietnamese name. The son of the Eastern Commonwealth’s emperor is named Kaito, a typically Japanese name. Linh Cinder’s android sidekick also has a Japanese name: Iko.

The book mentions other amorphously Asian aesthetics, as though attempting to emphasize the Oriental-ness of her world. Here are a few direct examples from the novel:

Chapter 1: a seamstress fits Cinder’s stepsister, Peony, for a gown, addressing Cinder’s stepmother as “-jiě (姐),” which means, “older sister.” This sort of construction is inconsistently peppered throughout the book.
Chapter 3: Iko the Android references a street name in New Beijing, Sakura. The sakura is the National Flower of Japan. In Mandarin, cherry blossoms are called “yīng huā (樱花).”
Chapter 8: Dumpling reference. Made me laugh! It felt so strange!
Chapter 18: brief descriptions of pagodas, which I’ll picture below! I’ll also include photos of the qilin gargoyles that were mentioned.
Summer Palace: qilin statue
A qilin “gargoyle,” as mentioned in Cinder! “Gargoyle” is a European term, but I suppose it can be used to describe these guardian statues. In Chinese mythology, the appearance of a qilin, or unicorn, signifies the incoming death of a ruler or sage.

The excerpt that made me do a double-take:

Chapter 31: Cinder’s stepmother wears a kimono, which is a Japanese set of clothing.

As an Asian reader, this peculiar mashing-together of Asian cultures irked me a bit. I’m certainly used to seeing Asian cultures clumsily sequestrated for Western audiences. See below:

When poorly done (I’d say that the original 1998 animated version of Mulan is an example of an Asian culture presented for Western audiences), this is an, “Oop! Ouch! Nope!” kind of thing to see!

Cinder is yet another clumsy sequestration.

It seems that the book’s author threw a whole landmass into a blender without considering the implications. Was this supposed to be commentary on international relations? Why wasn’t it good commentary? (Especially given the imperialist history of Japan, the fact that “New Beijing” was so influenced by Japanese iconography is not ideal on the novel’s part.)

And aPropos Implications, here are A Few Rather Nitpicky, Rather Lighthearted Questions about that Worldbuilding

1,000 Years of Vietnamese Clothing
Vietnamese clothing across history, illustrated by lilsuika.

Traditional Dresses of South Asia by ArsalanKhanArtist.deviantart.com on  @deviantART | Traditional outfits, Traditional dresses, Asian outfits
The diverse attire of South Asia, illustrated by ArsalanKhanArtist.

  • Did the attendants at the ball that occurs in Cinder wear any of these outfits?
  • This is probably the most nitpicky inquiry in this list, but how is “New Beijing” stylized in this world, lexicon-wise?
    • The convention of renaming a rebuilt city “New” is a fairly Western convention. For example:
    • In contrast, Chinese location names are usually geographic indicators.
      • For example, “Běijīng (北京)” translates into “Northern (北) Capital City (京).”
      • And “Guǎngzhōu (广州)” means “Wide/Numerous (广) Prefecture (州).” 州 stipulates an important city or area.
    • Would “New Beijing” be written like, “新北京,” or in some other way?
      • Does logosyllabic Chinese writing still exist in the world of Cinder? Likely not, given the mixed-Chinese-English-Spanish language of Cinder‘s post-conflict universe.
  • The book sparingly uses a few Chinese endings of address. Do the Eastern Commonwealth’s citizens use other titles and endings?
    • Do Cinder‘s characters utilize titles of sibling hierarchy, which is common in Asia?
      • For instance, older brothers and friends in the Philippines are called, “Kuya,” while older sisters are known as, “Ate.”
        • The second eldest brother or sister in a family are referred to as, “Diko” and “Ditse” respectfully!
    • Would Cinder call adults she’s not related to “Auntie” and “Uncle,” which Asian people often do? (😋 I jest! But still.)
  • Last one: does the Eastern Commonwealth celebrate Lunar New Year? Cinder mentions festivals and events in passing.

These are just a few things one could consider while building futuristic Asian surroundings!

Cinder minced so many vast cultures together (and ignored others, such as the virtual entirety of Southeast and South Asia). It still could have been effective. In another fictional universe — maybe one in the fantasy genre; something along the lines of Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s four-nation world — Cinder‘s mashing might would have been more acceptable. Mashing is a tenet of the fantasy genre. (Truly, Avatar does a fair job at this, for the most part! Xiran Jay Zhou explains Avatar and other Asian media representation impeccably in this video!)

Sadly, the book doesn’t have enough fantasy elements to justify the mashing. Cinder draws direct corollaries to historical events such as the World Wars. Cinder was intended to reflect real life. Why is Asia, an enormous, diverse, complex continent, depicted as such a monolith?

If the author wanted to depict Asian cultures in her story, that’s her prerogative. That would have been totally cool, and I would have applauded her down the path.

It just didn’t work out.

(And — tangent with slight spoilers! To avoid them, scroll down past the Cinder covers from different countries! — that’s not to mention the inadvertent white-washing and white-saviorism in Cinder.

Though the book’s author specifies that Linh Cinder is a mixed-race Asian character, the text itself is wholly unclear about Cinder’s ethnicity. With some interpretations, the text even implies that she is not Asian:

A scene from Chapter 11, in which Linh Cinder meets a European doctor who notes Cinder’s European-ness.

This haziness resulted in a lot of debate over Cinder’s ethnicity and appearance in Lunar-Chronicles circles, such as discussions here, here, and here, with responses as recent as 2020. Tread cautiously, as these forums include spoilers, and can skew towards insensitivity. Take these discussion boards with a grain of salt, too; they are indeed sparsely moderated Internet discussion boards!

Still, the widespread confusion is notable. Plus, the author’s retconning of the protagonist’s ethnicity somewhat feels like a last-minute attempt to appease speculations on Cinder’s identity.

And if you need a run-down or explanation of the detriments of whitewashing, here are two great sources! To sum it up, whitewashing smothers diverse voices and eliminates already sparse representation. In specifically Asian settings, whitewashing the protagonists exoticizes and alienizes real-life Asian places and people. White-saviorism is similar in its traits.)

When writing about diverse characters and experiences, the goal isn’t total accuracy. (If it was, then 1998’s Mulan wouldn’t be an example of Asian representation done right!) The goal is respect, understanding, and appreciation. Cinder tried to achieve this, but fell short.

Cinder’s worldbuilding exhibited a lack of nuance and research; it demonstrates an unfortunate trope in fiction: the application of Western (specifically American) lenses on Asian realities.

Meyer’s response to the question, “What was your favorite part of the world-building process?”

It’s definitely possible to create “East-meets-West fusion,” as the author states in her interview in the back of my e-book copy. But the East and the West have independent complexities that should be investigated.

If you mishandle your worldbuilding, you’ll end up with emptiness. This hasty effect was not all the author’s intention (I’m sure that the author meant well!), but the outcomes yielded were the outcomes we received.

‘Tis what ’tis, dear traveler.

The novel dismayed me. Even worse, its shortcomings distracted from an otherwise decent read. The story could have been a passable way to spend a few afternoons. But here we are now, our expressions blank and our fists folded.

At least the book tried! Trying is a start, and the first step towards improvement. And yo, at least Cinder made me feel strongly about something! It did what lesser stories could not: it summoned emotions within me. (Such as frustration and concern!)

By Jove, dear traveler — I still had so much fun with this book. Reading Cinder was like exploring a junkyard. Most of what you’ll find is little more than rubble, but if you look at the mush in the right light, you’ll find the most invaluable treasures. And even if you don’t find anything good — even if food waste, misplaced recyclables, and broken glass surround you from all sides — the experience of scavenging and scouring might be joyful enough.

I kind of love Cinder in a backwards way. 😆 It was fine. I accept it for what it is, and I can’t ask for anything more.

It has been quite a few years since the novel was first published (a whole 8 years! I was in third grade when this book was released!), and its sequels may offer more developments to the world. I’m truly excited to read the rest of the Lunar Chronicles.

For now, however, this book is staying at a single star. 😅


Thank you so much for reading my ruminations on Cinder, traveler! Tell me how you feel about the novel, if you’d like, and correct me if I am wrong in any portion of my review. I’m always happy to hear your perspective, and I will never turn down an opportunity to learn.

The path is long and full of stories. Keep looking for tales to love! 📚💙💌


Don’t miss a post! Coming up next on Sophie and Their Stories: my reading wrap-up for the 69 books I read in 2020!

Let’s connect across the Net! 💖

7 thoughts on “Rubble You’ll Find in a Junkyard: A Review of Cinder

  1. ahh you put so much effort into this review and it really shows, sophie! i remember liking cinder when i read it a long time ago, but looking back, it definitely was really questionable in terms of worldbuilding. thank you so much for writing this review and highlighting the terrible representation!!

    (also, hello!! i’m new to your blog but i love it and your blogging voice so much 🥺💖)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow this is such an incredibly well written review that brought to light such an important topic and discussion. I’m truly blown by how eloquently you expressed yourself and I can’t help but agree with every single comment you made. I appreciate your perspective of the book so much and I’m so glad I found your content

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I never read Cinder, but I did start the second one (i think it was the only one we had lying around the house), which was set in France, and I remember thinking the setting was basically America. I couldn’t understand why the author set the book in another country. But wow, this is really bad. ‘Kimono are Japanese garments, not Chinese’ isn’t exactly information that’s super hard to find.

    Anyway, loved your review! It was really detailed and interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

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