Novel * Marissa Meyer * Fairy Tales and Mind Control * 2014
Cress is book three of The Lunar Chronicles, a so-far delightful series of far-future science fiction loosely based on classic fairy tales. It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you’re well aware of that fact. Each book in the series introduces a new major character, each one based on a particular fairy tale. The protagonist is a cyborg-mechanic named Cinder. Next up is a sassy young farmer named Scarlet. This book, the longest so far, is named after a tiny-yet-brilliant computer whiz named Cress. She’s based on the Rapunzel story, and so at the beginning of the novel we find her in the sci-fi version of a tower, an orbiting satellite-prison that Cress has been confined in for most of her life. Also, she has extremely long hair, because that’s kind of part of the deal. That’s about as far as the fairy tale parallel goes, because Cress is almost immediately rescued from her satellite-prison, in that it falls out of orbit and crashes to earth. I could be wrong, but I don’t recall any version of the Rapunzel story where the prince rescues her by just knocking the tower over, although if it does exist I would probably really enjoy it.
Since this is the third entry in a series, I’m going to make the assumption that you’ve read the first couple of books or otherwise don’t care about spoilers. I’m also going to assume that you intend to finish the series, because it is good. If you’ve been feeling the tone and overall story, Cress continues to provide what you like. So far, I feel that Scarlet is the weakest of the three main characters, however she doesn’t get a lot of screen time, so I don’t see that changing much since she doesn’t get much of a chance to grow as a character. As for the new character, Cress herself, I happen to like her quite a lot. Cinder is still probably the strongest, most well rounded character of the bunch, but again, she’s the actual protagonist so that’s to be expected. Cress, though, is wonderful fun. There are tropey elements to her character, as there are with pretty much everyone here, but as a whole package it makes sense. Actually, and I hesitate to say this, but The Lunar Chronicles are basically anime. The world and premise are outlandish and makes for intriguing science fiction, the characters are a little broad and hew to almost-but-not-quite character tropes. Captain Thorne is your charming rogue with a heart of gold. Cress is the socially awkward waif who becomes formidable in pressure situations. You get it. It’s really not a bad thing.
Ah, dang it. The first two volumes of this series were there, ready to help me out with ready-made, surprisingly deep discussion questions printed at the end. Cress also has “bonus materials,” but they consist of a sample chapter of some other thing I don’t care about and an interview with the author that I also don’t care about. But wait, I said to myself, desperate to avoid any kind of work, what about the internet? Nah, the only thing I could find was some unofficial book club questions that were extremely limp. Hell, damn, butts. I guess that leaves it all to me. The only problem with this state of affairs is the fact that I’m having trouble coming up with anything, because now all I can think of is how anime these books are. While this is a fun line of thought, mostly because it makes my wife all indignant, it’s also not a particularly fruitful one. Yeah, sure, now I’m picturing everyone with big old honking eyeballs and when things get silly they’ll inexplicably turn into short, squat chibi versions of themselves, but that’s still not particularly engaging. Even if it is fun.
It occurs to me that maybe that’s the issue I’m having. I was misled by the first two novels and their fancy discussion questions. You might not recall, but the analysis level on those things went from trite to Derrida pretty much between questions one and two. Now, I obviously appreciate looking for depth in media. Even when something seems light and frivolous it’s often that way for a reason. There’s still a reflection on the society said product comes from. These books are clearly no exception. I think the issue might be that those original two batches of discussion questions swung for the fences in a way that might have been detrimental to really appreciating what we have in The Lunar Chronicles. As a champion of reading, and more importantly thinking about what you’ve read, I appreciate the attempt. After all, the target demographic of these novels are not dudes with a Master’s degree who are pushing 40. Yes, okay, all books are for everyone, but you know what I mean. These are marketed as young adult novels, and unlike some novels in this space, the tone and language here are decidedly aimed at an audience of teenagers. Therefore, I appreciate whipping some analysis on them when they’re not expecting it. That said, maybe just yelling “what’s the meaning of life, ya doofus?” is not the best way to go about things.
When you’re trying to trick people into thinking about things, you have to be subtle about it. The entry point to any story are the characters, right? Now let’s get to sterotyping! Cress, the titular hero of this third novel, is a severe introvert. Through most of her life, she only really interacts with a few people, and while she has immense technical skill, when it comes to human interaction she’s basically hopeless. Now, as someone who grew up preferring the company of books to the company of my peers, there’s a certain amount of validation and comfort to be found in a character like Cress. I’m going to go way out on a limb and suppose that things haven’t changed all that much since I was a reclusive teenager, and state that your typical bookworm might be inclined toward social awkwardness. Here comes little Cress, then, and she’s clearly an extreme example of this kind of introverted personality. She’s different than most of our reading audience, though. Cress never had a choice. She was locked up at a young age, and her situation, should it be replicated on Earth in our time, would be classified as horrifying child abuse. Considering that, Cress is actually pretty well adjusted. Since we’re dealing with a fairy tale anime, however, we can expect these story elements to skew to the extreme side of things. Cress’ character still appeals to the latent introvert in the book-obsessed, and more to the point, validates that personality.
Cress is rad almost entirely because she’s never once comfortable with herself and yet still manages to push forward. Even in scenes where her technical mastery should distinguish her as extraordinary, Cress is still wracked with insecurity and inadequacy. And yet – and yet! – she doesn’t succumb to self-pity. At least not for any extended period. In this way, Cress is a lot more like Cinder, except that their technical specialties are different, of course. There’s also the matter of Cinder displaying the innate qualities of leadership that Cress obviously lacks, despite the fact that their upbringing was similarly horrible. Cress is quite clearly marked as a severe introvert, while Cinder is not. All the more curious, then, that Cress finds herself drawn to Captain Thorne, and vice-versa. Perhaps it’s not that surprising, given that we’re dealing with a couple attracted to what they are outwardly not. It turns out, the more we learn of these two characters the more we understand that beneath the persona they present to the public, they share many innate qualities. Look, I know none of this is any kind of earth-shattering revelation. But a good story doesn’t need to rewrite the landscape of critical theory, you know? Sometimes simply putting words to how books and stories make us feel is enough.