A while back I stumbled, completely by accident, across an odd little novel called Cinder. Now, it’s probably not that odd, since apparently it spent a chunk of time on the New York Times Bestseller List, but I’d never heard of it before.
What can I say? I’m a Millennial. Fuck the newspapers.
Now, I’m gonna be honest. I judge books by their covers. I have ever since I can remember. The only reason I picked up The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton was because I thought the cover looked cool and my parents desperately wanted me to purchase something not written by RL Stine.
It would be easy for me to go, “Oh, I was only nine then, I learned to not pick books based on covers later,” but it would also be bullshit. Covers matter. Otherwise, people wouldn’t spend so much money on them.
Anyway, Cinder‘s cover clearly has the standard-issue Twilight influences. An appendage, an object, a splash of red, etc. But there, on the cover, you also see that this appendage is cybernetic.
If I’m a sucker for anything, it’s fairy tales and cyborgs.
So I bought it, took it home, and cracked that sucker open.
Now, if your brain is like mine, it’s cranking away the entire time you’re reading a novel, trying to wrench clues from the words on the page, to figure out where the story’s going, seeing if it can cut the author off at the pass. And there’s a special kind of pleasure in being thoroughly, utterly outwitted by a story. Those are the books you hand off to friends and say, “You’ll never believe how this ends.” And then four years later you still haven’t gotten your goddamned book back.
Cinder was not one of those books. I had the three major plot twists more or less hammered out flat by the time I was a third of the way in, and I had no way of knowing that I would actually be properly surprised by the end of the story by something completely innocuous, something I should have 100% expected. But, here is the extraordinary part:
I kept on reading.
Anyone who knows me will tell you immediately, no questions asked, that I go into anaphylactic shock at the very thought of a spoiler. “King Kong dies?! Soylent Green is people?! The princess is in another castle oh Christ get me my EpiPen”
Which is why it is of note, to me, that not only did I continue reading Cinder, but, on finishing it, I did not feel in any way that my time had been wasted. It was not a hate-read, which I indulge in sparingly, nor did I force myself to continue reading it thinking it might help me learn a thing or two about what not to do in storytelling. I rather quite enjoyed myself, and I purchased the sequel as soon as I found a reasonably economical way to do so (namely, four bucks for the Kobo ebook edition).
Now, like I said, this whole book was pretty much on rails. I got on, handed the conductor my ticket, and was assured that the trip from Exposition Station on through Rising Action Hills, over Climax Mountain, and down into Denouement Valley would be smooth and uninterrupted. I purchased some Chocolate Frogs from the snack trolley and enjoyed the ride. All this is to say there was nothing really new in the structure of the story.
Cinderella, as a concept, has been done to death. Any given fairy tale has become basically elemental in terms of narrative, and the mistreated stepchild who isn’t allowed to attend the ball is no different. As a structure it is so fundamental that if you can find some way to fuse Cinderella and Die Hard, you’ll have the ultimate elevator pitch.
As for the other parts? The idea of a lunar kingdom can be dated back to a 10th century Japanese story, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” The “lost heir to the throne” schtick has got quite a bit of dust on it. Even cyborgs are not particularly fresh, in their modern incarnation. So, all the pieces laid out individually, there is nothing here that is new under the sun. In point of fact, some of it is very old. Remember how I mentioned 10th century Japan.
The trick, though, is in the arrangement of those pieces and the way they play with reader expectations. Who do you make the cyborg? The prince, to emphasize his strength of purpose? The wicked stepmother, to dial up her inhumanity? Or do you choose Cinderella herself, to drag that archetype kicking and screaming down to earth? And hey, there aren’t typically other kingdoms at play in a Cinderella story. Adding political intrigue could be interesting. Oh, and maybe, while we’re at it, we could get rid of the fairy godmother. Let’s see ol’ Cinderelly pull herself up by her bootstraps for once…
Then all of a sudden, just by adding elements, replacing others, and cutting bits out entirely, you wind up with something that is not necessarily original, but is, by all means, new. Sure, it’s derivative, but everything is derivative. Shakespeare ripped off shit so old most people don’t know it was ripped off. Bach used the exact same notes and chords as everybody else. Even you, yourself, as a unique individual creature formed of proteins mapped by DNA you inherited from your parents, are derivative.
But you are still you. Even though you have a literal, direct source whence you came, nobody is like, “Pffft. Man, you are such a ripoff of your parents. Weaksauce.” See, if you do it right, you can manage the same phenomenon in your writing—you’re just using bits of different stories rather than strands of DNA.
If you asked me if Cinder was just another Cinderella story, I’d tell you hell no. That I was, in point of fact, caught wholly off guard by the inevitable glass slipper analogue when it happened because I had more or less forgotten that Cinderella was an essential ingredient in the mix. I was caught up in the story, even though I’d reflexively analyzed it to death only a handful of chapters in.
The reason I was caught up was because I’d never encountered anything quite like it.
I mean, there was a moon queen and shit was going to hell in a handbasket at the ball intended to be a reception for said moon queen and the prince’s life was in danger and there had been no fairy godmother to bail Cinder’s cyborg ass outta the fireplace and there was this plague and suddenly BOOM.
Glass slipper analogue.
It took damn near the entire book, but it finally caught me by surprise. And it surprised me with the part I should’ve seen coming from a mile away.
That, ladies and gents and individuals of fluid, indeterminate, or absent gender, is how you know you’ve got something new.