The cyberpunk fairytale concept is intriguing. In a market flooded by retellings, this twist on Cinderella offers a cyborg grease-monkey heroine with a spitfire attitude and a bad case of technologically-induced amnesia. (Nope...haven't seen that before!) There's no fairy godmother to be had, and the closest thing Cinder has to benevolent animal companions is an outdated, pleasantly dysfunctional android named Iko. But despite the questionably-justified (and minimally explored) suspension of human rights for cyborgs—and the looming threat of an incurable (but vaguely explained) pandemic—this story really doesn't have that gritty dystopian aftertaste.
How far in the future the book is set isn't clear. Readers will gather that it's been 125+ years since World War 4 decimated large portions of the population and somehow resulted in a joining together of countries into a conglomerate of six nations—which generally sound like they're based on the six habitable continents. Each resulting nation seems to run its own form of sovereign government—the story taking place in the “Eastern Commonwealth,” a monarchy with New Beijing at its center. There are hints that this is taking place many centuries farther in the future—or perhaps in some alternate version of our reality's future (my personally favored theory).
In Cinder's world, characters throw around words like “intergalactic,”and the moon has been long ago colonized by humans who have—through unspecified means—become something both more and less than human. And by “more and less than human” I mean they've turned into a reclusive race of telepathically-manipulative, technologically-superior beings controlled by one uber-vain brainwashing queen who brazenly slaughters all who do or might oppose her sociopathic will.
Side Note: I'm not among those who have some huge ethnicity beef with this book. It's set (presumably) so far in the future, I would expect a significant genetic muddling to have taken place by then. Add to that, there seems a deliberate sparseness of physical descriptors for a majority of main and side characters. I'm still not clear on what Prince Kai looked like, aside from black hair and handsome-by-general-consensus. The same goes for Cinder, the two stepsisters, and whatever the stepmother looks like sans makeup. Queen Lavana is intricately described...but this is a touch ironic, considering her appearance is a telepathically reinforced lie.
What DID bother me about the whole New Beijing setting was tied to weaknesses in the worldbuilding. The Asiatic references (primarily names, food, and a few iconic props) felt a bit superficial and watered down. But if I look at it from a more fantasy angle, this becomes easier to dismiss. It also helps ease some expectations I initially had for a deeper examination of why Cyborgs (even those with only a small percentage of artificial parts) would be so widely regarded as sub-human. While it seems a lost opportunity to explore the roots of prejudice and subjugation, I expect that would have added too much length and complication to a story that already has a lot going on.
Sadly, this reader didn't care much for the hero. Prince Kai came off a bit blasé and weak as far as dynastic future-rulers go. He's kind and well-intentioned, to be sure...but the limited time spent in his head isn't much for helping readers get to know him beyond his title. Handicapped by a seemingly useless adviser and woefully outmaneuvered by his enemy, I kept hoping he'd come up with some hint of cleverness or way of asserting himself outside of sarcasm...but alas, that didn't occur. I suppose there is hope for future books.
Which brings me to the ending...
Without giving anything away, I think I'm safe saying it's a fairly unresolved cliffhanger. Unfortunately it leaves little satisfaction in it's efforts to entice readers into picking up the next book. But on the up side...there's also no Deus ex Machina to be found.
Despite my mixed feelings, this is an entertaining book I would still feel good about handing to my 14-year-old goddaughter. The pacing is quick, the writing is effective, and the underlying message is empowering. Cinder is a strong-yet-flawed heroine—one whom readers will be more inclined to root for than pity, despite her backstory. And while there is a romantic angle, it avoids going the hyper-sexualized route and takes a far backseat to the plot.
I was just interested enough to pick up Scarlet, the next book in the series.