So, remember a while back when I reviewed Ash by Malinda Lo, and I mentioned another fairy tale adaptation that I really liked, one with cyborgs in space? Hey, look what’s back! Cress is the third book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, each one of which has so far been a retelling of a common fairy tale, all tied together with one overarching plot for the series. The first book, Cinder, is obviously Cinderella. Scarlet, the second book, is Little Red Riding Hood. And Cress, the third book, is Rapunzel (the fourth book, Winter, is the Snow Queen, I believe; the tie-in novella Fairest is probably Snow White).
I’ve always had a thing for 1) fairy tales, 2) cyborgs and robots, and 3) space. Honestly, unless the writing was atrocious, or the characters and plots were reduced to stupid stereotypes, there was a very low chance I was going to dislike this series. If anything, I’m just mad someone did it before I could. As a quick summary of the first two: Linh Cinder, living in future!China, is a cyborg mechanic (…she is a cyborg, not a mechanic who services cyborgs… though she also does that) who falls in love with Prince Kai, whose father the Emperor has been warding off the threats of Queen-of-the-Moon Levana, and the Lunars’ strange, sorcerous glamour. She is outed as a cyborg before she can stop Kai from agreeing to marry Levana, who has promised a cure to the terrible plague, letumosis, which turns out to have been genetically engineered by moon scientists anyway. Warrants are put out for Cinder’s arrest, but she escapes to France with the roguish Carswell Thorne. In France, they join forces with Scarlet Benoit and her scary-as-fuck sort-of-boyfriend Wolf, because Scarlet’s grandmother helped shelter the lost Lunar princess who could usurp Levana’s rule if found. Through a Series of Happenstances and Events, it is revealed that Cinder is, in fact, the lost princess of the moon (the wish fulfillment for the reader is So Real). All caught up? Good.
The third book focuses on Cress, full name Crescent (an unsurprisingly common name on the moon), who has been trapped in a small satellite orbiting Earth for a very large chunk of her young life. She is a ‘shell’, a Lunar who is unable to use their weird moon magic mind tricks, but she is used by the evil Queen to keep an eye on Earth and their satellite communications. Poor Cress has been in here for so long that her hair is long enough to drag behind her on the floor, all tangled and matted, and she has next to no social skills. She had been briefly introduced in previous books as a mysterious Lunar who wanted to help Cinder, but here she gets to be the focal character. Cinder and crew come to rescue her, and of course everything goes awry, because reasons. This is how Cress ends up wandering the desert with aforementioned rogue Carswell Thorne – who Cress has been infatuated with from a distance for some time now. This is, perhaps, unfortunate, as her lack of social skills leads her to believe that Thorne also loves her. Now, this is a fairy tale romance, and later in the book he realizes that he does… but not until after a series of misadventures leads to them getting separated and reunited at least twice.
For all that I really enjoy this series, and these characters, and this delightful setting, I really do feel like this book had some pacing issues. This series isn’t a trilogy, but it’s still got a serious case of middle-of-trilogy syndrome. Everything has really been established and set into motion in the previous two books and an unfortunate amount of this book feels like contrivances to keep everything from being solved before the next book. It’s not bad, by any means, but it was jarring to me how much of this book focused on separating and reuniting various chunks of Team Cinder at different points (oh, we found Cress! But oh, we lost Scarlet! But oh, we found Wolf! But oh, we lost Iko!). It’s a super common problem in trilogies and quadrilogies (quartets?), so Meyer is by no means the first or last author to have pacing problems in a middle volume, but you know it’s bad when I’m sitting here like “blah blah blah just kiss already so you can go win the moon!”
Now, due to the structure of these books, it seems like each one puts the previous characters a little bit more out of focus. Cinder, of course, focuses only on the titular character, because none of the others have been introduced yet. Scarlet is like 75% Scarlet and 25% Cinder. Cress is like 70% Cress, 20% Cinder, and 10% Scarlet. And Scarlet and Cress are really cool, I really do like them – but Cinder is infinitely cooler than either of them and should be given far more page-time. SHE’S A CYBORG MOON PRINCESS. Who can compete with a cyborg moon princess? Nobody, that’s who. This does, however, have the pleasant side effect that Cress has a minimum of “Cinder worries she’s becoming evil” subplot and “Wolf’s love of Scarlet goes beyond normal limits because reasons” subplot, because I didn’t really need much of those. A taste was enough. And Cress is sufficiently different from the previous two heroines that nothing feels like a rehashing in their primary plots.
It would be terribly remiss of me not to comment on the romance in these books, right? Because that is, I won’t lie, why I started reading them. I had just finished Mercedes Lackey’s Tales of the 500 Kingdoms and I needed something else to scratch my fairy tale romance retelling itch. So, Cinder and Kai love each other (even though Kai is dumb and it took him too long to realize that), and it is fairly apparent that they will end up together at the end, although the “how” is still shrouded in enough mystery to keep you guessing. Scarlet and Wolf, throughout the second book, keep going back and forth on “is Wolf evil or not? Does Scarlet love him or is she terrified of him?” In the end though, it turns out he is not evil and she does love him (though in my opinion she would still be justified in being terrified of him), and even though they’re separated, they’re the most stable, consistently in-love couple in these books (as Cinder and Kai have not yet had the chance to express their love for each other). Then in comes Cress and Carswell. They fulfill a different romance trope, one that is also seen in another retelling of Rapunzel – Tangled (interesting, as it is not part of the original story, I don’t think?). Carswell is your debonair, dashing, womanizing rogue, and Cress is a naive, sheltered, swooning type of girl. She thinks he’s in love when really he isn’t even sure he knows what love is. This follows pretty much the standard narrative arc – at about the same moment she realizes he doesn’t truly love her, he realizes that he actually does. Cue dramatic tension! Their romance, seemingly, will not be resolved until the fourth book, along with Cinder and Kai’s. This firmly cements Scarlet and Wolf as the beta couple (awkward, since Scarlet is apparently Wolf’s alpha).
Oh right, and that whole reclaim-the-moon-from-the-evil-queen and stop-the-hot-prince’s-wedding thing. That’s still very much the main plot of the book. Pretty much as soon as Cinder finds out that she’s the lost Lunar princess, their primary goal becomes to have her usurp Levana’s power and be a benevolent moon queen. Cinder here has some conflict on whether or not she’s ready for this, but it is less central and less grating than it can be in some other similar stories. Initially their plan is to basically interrupt Kai’s wedding to Levana, because obviously, but in Cress, they wise up and realize that it’s way smarter for Cinder to try and rally support from the other Lunars first.
I assume that is how this will pave the way for the fourth book, focusing on the other Lunar princess, Winter, who’s beauty is said to rival Levana’s own, even without her glamour (my prediction is that Winter will, in fact, become the queen of the moon and Cinder will marry Kai and become an Empress on Earth). Princess Winter is briefly introduced at the very end of the book (Scarlet got kidnapped and taken to the moon, obviously), and I’m really interested to see what she’ll be like as a viewpoint character, seeing as she’s slightly crazy (Lunars become delusional if they don’t use their glamours for too long). And I’m definitely also interested in checking out Fairest, because I do love to get the villain’s point-of-view, and that one is all about Levana. I’ve seen that Fairest is supposed to bridge Cress and Winter, so I should probably read it next, but I don’t know if I can wait to find out what happens with Team Cinder. I guess we’ll find out!
(Cyborg Moon Princess and Queen of the Moon are the two job titles I am the most interested in, so if anyone hears about any openings, let me know)