January 28, 2014

Book Review Column: Girl Power, By Lissa Sloan (Cinder, Scarlet, and Towering)

Girl Power:  In which I review three updates featuring classic fairy tale heroines: the girl with the slipper, the girl with the hood, and the girl with the hair.  (Cinder, Scarlet, and Towering)

Cinder and Scarlet, by Marissa Meyer

Cinder is volume I of The Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer’s blend of post-World War IV Earth and classic fairy tales.  Linh Cinder is the best mechanic in New Beijing, where she supports her stepmother and stepsisters by working out of a market stall.  When Crown Prince Kai gives her a mysterious repair assignment and later invites her to the royal ball, she finds him as attractive as the rest of the world does.  But Cinder can’t imagine Kai would be interested in her if he knew she was a cyborg.  And she has other things on her mind, such as the deadly plague that is hitting too close to home, fixing the family hover before the ball, and trying to avoid the cyborg draft.   When Cinder is forced to become a test subject for plague vaccines, she learns she is more different than she knew, and that time is short if she is to save Kai and all of Earth from the plans of the sinister Lunar queen, Levana.

Volume II of The Lunar Chronicles is Scarlet, which continues the story of Cinder and Kai, adding in Scarlet Benoit, who works on her grandmother’s farm and delivers produce to the nearby town.   Scarlet’s grandmother has been missing for two weeks.  The police have given her up for dead, leaving Scarlet to search on her own until she receives an offer of help from Wolf, a mysterious and potentially dangerous stranger.  Meanwhile, Cinder is on the run from the government, who has promised to turn her over to Queen Levana to avoid her declaring war, as Kai desperately seeks a diplomatic solution to the Lunar problem.

Cinder and Scarlet provide a clever futuristic update for "Cinderella" and "Little Red Riding Hood." It is great fun predicting how Meyer will use events from the original tales (quite inventively, in most cases) and when she will depart from them completely.  However, The Lunar Chronicles so far tell a story that is quite engaging in its own right, set in a transporting world and peopled with appealing characters.  Cinder and Scarlet are both strong, sympathetic heroines, though in quite different ways.  Scarlet is fiery while Cinder is more introspective.  Likewise, Prince Kai is seriously charming while Wolf is more the strong and smoldering type.  There is plenty of high-stakes conflict from mustache-twirling villains like Cinder’s step family and Queen Levana and her minions, who possess a Jedi-like mind-controlling power.  But the drama is balanced by a good dose of comic relief, often provided by Iko, Cinder’s quirky shoe-loving, boy-crazy android, and roguish pilot Carswell Thorne, Cinder’s fugitive traveling companion.

Meyer is a skillful storyteller, deftly slipping in exposition, establishing relationships, and building characters while keeping the plot ticking briskly along.  At times her narration is a bit on the dramatic side and her villains a bit on the melodramatic side, but I was too busy enjoying the story to mind much.  The Lunar Chronicles have it all--action, adventure, romance, and a healthy dose of girl power.  I freely admit I’m looking forward to the next installment, Cress, which comes out in February.  Considering the leafy green title, and the fact that readers have already met an unattached character named Thorne who flies a spaceship called a Rampion, we can be fairly certain that the title character will be based on a tower-dwelling girl with a lot of hair. 

Towering by Alex Flinn

Speaking of "Rapunzel," Towering is Alex Flinn’s latest fairy tale update.  The story is told by alternating narrators, teenagers Wyatt and Rachel.  Haunted by recent personal losses, Wyatt moves to remote Slakkill, New York, to live with family friend Mrs. Greenwood.  Mrs. Greenwood is still grieving for her daughter, Danielle, who disappeared many years before.  Visited by an eerie dream, Wyatt feels drawn to learn more about the lost Danielle and her fate.  Rachel spends all her time in her tower room.  In between the visits of the woman she calls Mama, she has only her books for company.  She knows nothing of the outside world, only that Mama keeps her safe from those who would harm her.  But she knows that one day she will leave her tower, that there is something she must do, and someone she will meet.  When Wyatt appears outside her window in need of help, Rachel is ready to come to his rescue.

In many ways, Flinn updates "Rapunzel" quite effectively, changing the longed-for rampion into an addictive, hallucinogenic leaf, and exploring the themes of heroism, isolation, and rescue.  She also delves into some of the tale’s most intriguing questions: Why would an adult shut a child away from the world, how much protection is too much, and what would be the experience of this sheltered child when she finally experiences the real world?  Wyatt’s search for answers about Danielle, other vanished town teenagers, and a mysterious singing voice which only he can hear provides a shivery, gothic atmosphere.  

Unfortunately, I found that the resolution, complete with a prophecy, telepathic communication, and super strength, felt awkward and ill-suited to the introspective world of the story.  It was Towering’s three-dimensional characters and thought-provoking aspects that most resounded with me. 

What do you look for in female protagonists?  How is the fairy tale genre measuring up to your expectations? Who does it well?  Join the Enchanted Conversation and share your thoughts.  Happy reading!
Lissa's avatar, by Lissa
Lissa Sloan has contributed stories, poems, and guest posts to Enchanted Conversation, but she also writes and illustrates for younger readers. Visit her online at her website, lissasloan.com, or on Twitter, @LissaSloan. 


Anna Mussmann said...

After reading this review, I put Cinder on hold at my library. I'm looking forward to trying it!

Laura B. said...

excellent column.

Paula Richey said...

Okay, now I have that out of my system....
I love the Lunar Chronicles books! I'm so excited for Cress :) Marissa Meyers also offers a lot of free stories - "The Little Android" just came out on Wattpad, there's a backstory on Wolf which explores pack dynamics and his relationship with his brother, and a story about Cinder, and previews of the next book in the series are always available. She is definitely worth following on Facebook to get the most in-universe stories right away.

Anonymous said...

Excellent timing on this post! I've had my eye on the Lunar Trilogy since Cinder came out, but I really like to wait to read trilogies until all the books are released. Exciting!

Lissa Sloan said...

Enjoy, Anna! I think you will:)

Thanks, Laura!

Thanks for the info about all the extras, Paula. She also does contests for ARC's, etc.

Greenwoman, the Lunar Chronicles are actually going to have four books, with Winter coming out next year. But I don't blame you, it's so frustrating to have to wait for the next installment!

Brita Long said...

I've read Beastly, Cloaked, and A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn, but I have yet to read Towering.

I look for variety in female protagonists. For example, Jim C. Hines has written such rich and complex characters in his princess quartet, which retells and weaves together many classic fairy tales. Books or writers that only write one type of "strong female character" are almost as bad as those that only portray princesses as weak and helpless.