The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer may not have caused as much public excitement as some of the other female-led sci-fi/dystopian YA series of the past several years, but it doesn’t mean it’s less deserving of our attention. In fact, it’s a very solid series, led by a team of awesome kickass teen heroines. The plot is engrossing and action-packed and has an intriguing twist to boot—the main four books of the series offer loose, but still recognizable, retellings of four well-known fairy tales: Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty.
Spoilers below for Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter (the main four books of The Lunar Chronicles).
The Lunar Chronicles is set on Earth and on Luna (the moon), hundreds of years in the future. The Earth is suffering from a global pandemic of a deadly disease and is on the brink of war with Luna. We follow Cinder (Cinderella, obviously), a cyborg mechanic, working in New Beijing. Through a series of events, she ends up the leader of a plot to bring down the Lunar Queen and save the Earth from the plague. In the course of her quest, she meets the other heroines. Scarlet (Red Riding Hood) owns a farm in France with her grandmother. Cress (Rapunzel), a Lunar girl, is a computer whiz and a master hacker who’s imprisoned on a satellite and forced to spy on the Earth. Winter (Sleeping Beauty) is a kind-hearted Lunar princess suffering from hallucinations.
I don’t want to spoil the books and the plot for you too much, so I will just say that I really enjoyed the way the basic plots and characters of the four fairy tales were woven together into a larger plot. The transformation of the fairy tales into the science fiction setting is done in rather obvious ways, but that is what you need for them to still be recognizable, and so Cinderella becomes Cinder, a mechanic toiling away among dirty and oily machinery, The Big Bad Wolf becomes Wolf, a genetically engineered wolf-human hybrid, and so on. The overarching plot involves the war between Earth and Luna. The latter is ruled by an evil queen, Levana, who seems to be modeled after both the Evil Queen from Sleeping Beauty and the Ice Queen.
Despite not really liking fairy tales that much, I always love modern re-tellings which give the heroines more personality and don’t focus so much on the Prince Charmings of the original stories. I think author Marissa Meyer succeeds rather well in this regard. All four heroines have distinct personalities and different things that matter most to them. For instance, Scarlet is quite hot-headed, fearless, and a natural leader; her grandmother is the most important person to her. Cress, on the other hand, is naive and fearful due to spending most of her life alone on a satellite, but discovers her bravery and resourcefulness in the face of danger. And all the girls work together to bring down the Lunar Queen, each bringing their strengths to the table.
Additionally, none of the girls are portrayed as inherently weaker or lesser than the others. They all have strengths and weaknesses. Due to the nature of their work as a mechanic and a farmer, Cinder and Scarlet are less stereotypically girly and more tomboyish (Cinder, especially, can’t stay clean for even five minutes), but that doesn’t come into opposition with the more girly and princess-y ways of Cress and Winter. I’m all about this kind of portrayal of girls which refuses to submit to the misogynistic “she’s not like other girls” trope, instead showing us that strength can come in different forms and that it doesn’t matter if you appear dainty or rough.
Another thing that captivated me in this series is the portrayal of Winter. She has a mental illness called the Lunar sickness which manifests as hallucinations. She is often aware that she is hallucinating, but not always, which results in strange behavior. Because of that most people (and even herself) label her “crazy”. There are a few points that make Winter quite an extraordinary character. Firstly, it’s rare to see such an overt portrayal of a mental illness in a sci-fi setting—usually all we get are vague hints of something that looks like PTSD. Secondly, Winter basically refuses treatment for her illness which involves using mind control on other people (which is an ability most Lunar people have and use). Thirdly, Winter is one of the point-of-view characters, so we get to see what she feels and thinks. As a result we have a picture of an extremely kind and insightful person who uses people’s perception of her as the “crazy” princess to save others from danger. For instance, when Scarlet ends up in the custody of the Lunar Queen, Winter requests to have her as a pet to save Scarlet from torture and possibly death on Levana’s orders.
Winter is certainly an unusual character, but the nature of her mental illness does present quite a tricky problem, with lots of possibilities for the author to fall into ableist representation or romanticizing of mental illness. Winter’s character can be seen as somewhat problematic: at the very least, the word “crazy” is quite overused, in my opinion. However, I do feel like the author mostly succeeds at avoiding both romanticizing mental illness and ableist notions. Firstly, we get to see Winter’s thoughts and feelings and so we know how scared she is during her hallucinations or we understand how they sometimes make her feel as though she is dying, even occasionally incapacitating her during critical moments. I saw nothing romantic in those descriptions. Winter doesn’t want to have hallucinations, but she also doesn’t want to hurt people. In the end, when presented with a possibility of an alternative treatment, she’s excited at the prospect of not having hallucinations anymore.
The only thing I really dislike about this series is that, despite giving our team of heroines a lot of hurdles to surpass, the books still focus quite a lot on them pining over and thinking about their love interests. I wouldn’t be so annoyed with that if the author had taken the opportunity to make at least one (or more) of the girls queer and give them female love interests. That would have been a nice twist on the fairy tale as well. As it is now, as a lesbian, it was somewhat annoying and disheartening to read all about these amazing young women basically saving two worlds and still not being able to see a girl who wasn’t pining for a boy.
All in all, The Lunar Chronicles is a well-crafted engaging and entertaining series, featuring four excellent heroines. It avoids pitting girls against each other, instead showcasing how each girl has strengths useful in a fight against an evil regime. It also includes an explicit portrayal of mental illness from the character’s own point of view, a rare occurrence in sci-fi YA. The biggest negative aspect of the series is its extreme heteronormativity and failure to include any LGBTQ+ characters. However, if you can live with that and if fairy tales and/or badass teenage heroines are your thing, I highly recommend this series.