Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles burst onto the scene in 2012 with the release of Cinder and concluded in 2015 with Winter, the fifth book in the series. From beginning to end, Meyer manages a large cast of primary characters while cleverly hacking through a thicket of sci-fi and fairy-tale tropes. She re-imagines four classic princesses and their associated princes, and sends them hurtling through a page-turning, edge-of-your-seat ride to the final showdown between Cinder and her Aunt Levana, the evil Lunar Queen. Now that the finale furor over Winter has settled a bit, it is time to unpack these princesses and see what patterns, new and old, have emerged in their heroic journeys.
Warning: Spoilers below!
Meyer has done just that. Her cast of multi-racial, female and male characters exist on a broad continuum in terms of their expressions of stereotypical gender roles. Here is a quick run down:
Cinder and Kai: A couple of rulers. Cinder (Cinderella) is the least girly of the crew, a genius of a mechanic and a cyborg always up to her elbows in grease. The night of the ball, she loses her robotic foot on the stairs of the palace instead of a glass stiletto. She experiences serious prejudice and is forced to volunteer for life-threatening medical experiments because a cyborg's legal status is less than fully human. She kidnaps Kai, her prince, to prevent his forced political wedding to the evil Queen Levana. Both she and her prince suffer from severe self doubt. Cinder sees herself as both unimportant and personally responsible for every failure and death.
Scarlet and Wolf: A couple of warriors. Scarlet (Red Riding Hood) is practical and fierce, an organic farmer who can drive anything. She falls for a genetically altered man/wolf Lunar soldier, who is deeply conflicted by the animal instincts that have been forced upon him.
Cress and Captain Thorn: A couple of tricksters. Cress (Rapunzel) is a hopeless romantic and expert hacker. She is a “lunar shell,” unable to use, but also immune to, the Lunar gift of mind control. Considered less that human by Lunars who collect shells as infants and perform medical experiments on the ones they do not murder. She is imprisoned in a satellite and made to spy on the Earth for the Queen Levana. Her prince is Thorn, a ladies' man and second-rate pirate who knows he’s a cad. These two are head-over-heels in love with each other, but not without their doubts: Cress thinks she’s not pretty enough for him, and Thorn thinks he’s too much of a jerk to be worthy of her.
Winter and Jacin: A classic couple. Winter (Snow White) is a kind of female Hamlet. She is plagued by hallucinations, but sometimes she “puts an antic disposition on” to undermine her step-mother, Levana. She is exceptionally beautiful and humble. She is determined to do what is right, even at the risk of her sanity and her life. Jacin, her prince, does a lot of guarding and rescuing, but ultimately follows her into danger. In the final battle she breaks her own vow never to use mind control in order to save Jacin’s life.
Iko: The fangirl Iko is an android in the tradition of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data. She is Cinder’s sidekick, and the most girly-girl and boy-crazy of any of the female characters in her concerted effort to be more like a “real” human girl. She is also immune to Lunar mind control, and so she is able to take out a big chunk of the opposition.
Levana: The psychopath Queen Levana was brutalized, tortured and humiliated as a child. As an adult, she hides her scared and broken body behind an illusion of female beauty. She is a brutal, mind-controlling psychopath, who uses her victimhood to justify conquest and torture.
Much has been written about how the hero's journey of a female character follows a path fundamentally different from the journey undertaken by a male character. Conventional wisdom holds that male characters must go it alone to confront the villain mano a mano in the final scene. Female characters, on the other hand, are expected to build nurturing coalitions of community to face the villain collectively. While I do not believe this to be universally true, that is a topic for another post.
In The Lunar Chronicles, all four princesses pass through classic stages of the hero’s journey, some closer to a typical “hero” moment, some conforming more to the “heroine” version. But for each princess the final confrontation with their villain deserves some close consideration.
And seriously: more spoilers below! You have been warned. Twice.
Cinder and Levana initially confront each other at the head of their respective armies, setting up the expectation that the confrontation will be more of a “feminine” moment of community vs. community. But Cress broadcasts a video revealing Levana’s deformity and the queen flees in humiliation, leaving her mind-controlled subordinates to do the dirty work.
Later, the finale is a confrontation with a more “masculine” tone: Levana and Cinder, alone in the throne room mano a mano. Levana holds a bound Thorne (the trickster pirate) as hostage. Here the mind control abilities of the two women make any advantage of physical strength or firepower irrelevant. (That Thorn is cast in the role of the damsel in distress is a clever twist, and utterly believable.)
In The Lunar Chronicles, the supernatural power of mind control is more than just a fun plot device for increasing dramatic tension. As Ted McCombs has pointed out, mind control often falls into two types: “the brute force attack” or “the subtler, defter manipulations a person’s longings and fears.” The second type is more useful in revealing character. However, Meyer uses “brute force” mind control exclusively in The Lunar Chronicles as a way to level the playing field for her female characters in terms of raw power.
Of all the princesses, only Scarlet has no extraordinary mental ability: Cress hacks, Cinder and Winter both have the gift of mind control. Unlike those who use their powers for evil, the characters on the side of good are conflicted about taking free will away from others. Cinder asks permission when using her mind control powers, and she only does it so that the bad guys don’t grab her friends’ minds first. Winter uses her gift as a last resort in self defense and to save her friends. For female characters who have experienced powerlessness, taking control of someone else’s will is not a trivial thing. Poor Scarlet on her own would seem to be no match for the forces of evil arrayed against her. Perhaps that is why Meyer makes Scarlet’s prince the biggest, baddest wolf in the pack.
Each princess holds off from killing her villain until they have no other choice—it's kill or be killed, with the heroine literally on death's door. Especially in Cinder’s case, this feels awkward, a way to absolve Cinder of any responsibility in taking her aunt’s life. It could be the result of the “feminine” tone: nice girls don’t kill, even the bad guys, because they must be the embodiment of mercy. But I think it has more to do with another heroic rule: heroes become monsters themselves if they kill the villain. A hero that has taken a life can no longer live in the world they have saved. It’s Shane, Saba and a thousand other gunslingers riding off into the sunset. For a hero to stay, the villain must somehow be the cause of their own death.
To call The Lunar Chronicles re-imagined fairy tales is not to suggest that they are quaint, cartoonish or over-simplified. On the contrary, the violence is grotesque and graphic, more Brothers Grimm than Disney. The evils of mental and physical torture, biological warfare and soldiers forcibly and irrevocably altered are disturbing and undeniable. Not to mention the ordinary prejudice and discrimination that abound on the future Earth and Moon. But Meyer's vision isn't bleak: the romance takes the sting out of the horror. All the couples survive, more or less intact, and in the end the familiar feeling of “happily ever after” is preserved.
With The Lunar Chronicles, Meyer has set a new standard in the contemporary quest to redefine the fairy-tale princess. Her strong, talented princesses are richly drawn and well-rounded characters. They are free to have desires, flaws and failings that do not conform to one single type or gender role. These princesses of the future are exactly the heroines we need today.
Postscript: Meyer’s books are selling like hotcakes, and readers are obviously hungry for more. Stars Above, a collection of Meyer's short stories set in the universe of The Lunar Chronicles, was released in early February 2016. Look for a Fiction Unbound review coming soon.
Cross-post from FictionUnbound.com