Prince Kai in "The Lunar Chronicles" |Lunar Chronicles Analysis Part 3|
Updated: Sep 10
Hello, fair viewers, and welcome to part three of my The Lunar Chronicles analysis. If you’re new to this discussion, I definitely recommend you start with part one and two. Part one has all my disclaimers and introduces why I decided I wanted to talk about this series.
Seen parts one and two? Great. Let’s dive right into part three and talk about our sci-fi fairy tale prince, Kai.
Now, I do enjoy Kai, I do, but he also frustrates the heck out of me.
As Cinder’s love interest, Kai is supposed to be a nice, cute guy who cares about his people and struggles with his duty to govern an empire.
He’s also really self-centred.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think most fans of the book view him that way, and I definitely don’t think this was intentional on the Meyer’s part. In fact, there are a few moments where she seems to be conscious that Kai might be coming off as a tad self-centred, and so she’ll quickly insert a line of dialogue to downplay that, such as Kai saying something along the lines of “I shouldn’t expect royal treatment,” or “I don’t want to sound like a spoiled prince.” So I think Meyer very much did not want Kai to come across as self-centred, but there’s too much evidence to the contrary in the books.
To be clear, I’m not saying Kai is selfish. That’s not the same thing, and we see from his willingness to sacrifice himself for his people that he definitely isn’t selfish. But he is self-centred. Let’s take a look at what I mean.
The first bit of evidence I lay before the jury is all of Kai’s flirting at Cinder. Yes. At. At least mostly at. Since we see things from Cinder’s POV, we as readers understand she likes him, but before that moment at the ball where Cinder kisses him, Kai hasn’t had any clear signals she’s into him. Little she says to him goes beyond basic civility, and anytime she does say something that could be interpreted as flirty, she usually ends up backtracking, downplaying her interest, or turning down an invitation to the ball immediately after.
Kai inched toward the table again. “Come on. I can’t take you to the…B-word; I can’t take you to lunch. Short of my unplugging the processor on one of my androids, this could be the last time we ever see each other.”
“Believe it or not, I’d actually kind of resolved myself to that fact already.”
Cinder, Chapter Thirty.
Kai flirts at her. Cinder doesn’t usually flirt back. For most of the book, she’s pretty stiff in how she speaks to him. We can’t even say he saw her blush and took that as positive reinforcement.
He asks her to the ball. She tells him no. Repeatedly. She tells him to take another girl. Tells him to dance with her sister. Refuses to accept his comms. Even if we know Cinder likes him, Kai is harassing her.
Now that I think about it, maybe Cinder’s rejections are the whole reason Kai thinks she treated him like an ordinary person. Because no one else would dare tell him no.
If Kai wasn’t self-centred, if he was trying to take Cinder’s feelings toward him into account, and if he had any care for the enormous power imbalance between them, he would back off before his position and power coerced her into accepting an invitation she didn’t want. Instead, whether he’s joking or not, he uses his position as prince to make her reconsider going to the ball. Another time he asks her to the ball in front of a group of people, which is kind of an intimidation tactic. He doesn’t take no for an answer, because he wants her to distract him from his problems. He’s not taking the time to seriously contemplate if her rejections might just mean she isn't interested in him.
Kai cleared his throat. Stood straighter. “I assume you are going to the ball?”
“I-I don’t know. I mean, no. No, I’m sorry, I’m not going to the ball.”
Kai drew back, confused. “Oh. Well…but…maybe you would change your mind? Because I am, you know.”
“Not bragging,” he said quickly. “Just a fact.”
“I know.” She gulped. The ball. Prince Kai was asking her to the ball. But that was the night she and Iko would be running away, if the car was fixed in time. The night she would escape.
Besides, he didn’t know who, what, he was asking. If he knew the truth…how mortified would he be if anyone found out?
Kai shifted on his feet, casting a nervous glance toward the doctor.
“I-I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Thank you—I…Thank you, Your Highness. But I must respectfully decline.”
Cinder, Chapter Eighteen.
Kai tilted his head, peering at her as if he could see right through to the metal plate in her head. The intensity of his gaze didn’t mellow. “I think you should go to the ball with me.”
She clutched her fingers. His expression was too genuine, too sure. Her nerves tingled. “Stars,” she muttered. “Didn’t you already ask me that?”
“I’m hoping for a more favourable answer this time. And I seem to be getting more desperate by the minute.”
Cinder, Chapter Twenty-Four.
The second bit of evidence I leave before the jury is what happens at the ball. Cinder crashes her car then shows up at the ball with mud on her clothes, her hair in a mess, and drenched from a rainstorm. Yes, Cinder is set up as someone who can’t wear a dress for two minutes without staining it, but surely this goes far beyond her usual level of disheveledness. Yet does Kai ask her what happened and if she’s okay? Does he ask her if she needs to borrow a new set of clothes so she doesn’t get hypothermia?
Gathering up the full silk skirt, she fixed her gaze on Kai and made her way slowly down the steps.
His eyes softened into something almost like amusement, as if such a ragged appearance was all one could expect from a renowned mechanic.
Cinder, Chapter Thirty-Four.
Nah. He’s not paying attention. His response is to look at the state she’s in and think, “That’s my Cinder! Can’t keep her hair neat for two minutes.”
In his frenzied thoughts, he couldn’t help thinking of Cinder at the ball. How happy he’d been to see her descending the stairs into the ball room. How innocently amused he’d been at her rain-drenched hair and wrinkled dress, thinking it was a fitting look for the city’s most renowned mechanic. He’d thought she must be immune to society’s whims of fashion and decorum. So comfortable in her own skin that she could come to a royal ball as the emperor’s own guest with messy hair and oil stains on her gloves and keep her head high as she did so.
Scarlet, Chapter Forty-Three.
What’s more, despite how much he’s pursued her, the very first moment she needs him to take her side, he lets her down. I’m not even talking about how he legally is required to hand her over to Levana. I honestly don’t blame him for that given the laws and what information he had. However, when Cinder has fallen and is at his and the Lunar queen’s mercy at the ball, he sees that Cinder is Lunar, and he’s so upset that he insults her and turns his back on her.
“Was it all in my head? A Lunar trick?”
“Her stomach twisted. “No.” She shook her head, fervently. How to explain that she hadn’t had the gift before? That she couldn’t have used it against him? “I would never lie—”
The words faded. She had lied. Everything he knew about her had been a lie.
“I’m so sorry,” she finished, the words falling lamely in the open air.
Kai peeled his eyes away, finding some place of resignation off in the glistening garden. “You’re even more painful to look at than she is.”
Cinder, Chapter Thirty-Six.
This actually could have been a good moment. It’s a normal, if unkind, reaction to a surprise like that, but he wallows in his emotions in Scarlet. He gets so stuck in his own head that he spends much of his spare time brooding about his hurt feelings and never showing real concern for what dangers Cinder might be facing. He goes back and forth between, “I feel I like Cinder, but she made me feel that way. But I think I like her. But she made me.” He’s stuck in that rut while he very well knows that Cinder is a wanted fugitive worldwide who faces a death sentence if caught. And he can barely spare a thought for how she might be feeling despite supposedly liking her so much.
He does think of Cinder from time to time, but it’s almost always with an emotional distance. He thinks of her as this criminal he needs to chase and almost never as someone he empathizes with who’s in a great deal of danger.
Her Lunar glamour had been even more striking than Queen Levana’s, and her beauty was painful.
Kai knew that’s what it had been: Cinder’s glamour, fading in and out even as he stood above her, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.
What he didn’t know was how many times she’d glamoured him before that. How many times she’d tricked him. How many times she’d made him out to be a complete fool.
Or had the girl at the market, muddied and disheveled, been the real girl after all? The girl who had risked her life to come to the ball to give Kai a warning, unsteady cyborg foot and all…
“It doesn’t matter,” he said to his empty office, the disconnected foot.
Whoever Linh Cinder was, she was no longer his concern.
Scarlet, Chapter Seven.
Imagine how much more compelling the romance between these two might have been even with a very subtle change here. Imagine if Kai had thought, “I know I’m probably only having these thoughts because Cinder manipulated me, but I can’t help hoping she’s okay. I can’t help wondering if she’s scared, if she’s had enough to eat, if she’s lonely. I know I’m supposed to catch her, but I really hope she gets away.”
There is one time Kai says he wishes Cinder would disappear, but the reason he gives isn’t that he cares for Cinder, it’s that he wants Cinder to disappear to spite Queen Levana. Because he’s pissed at the queen.
He couldn’t help it, but a part of him—maybe a large part of him—hoped Cinder would just disappear, like a fading comet’s tail. Just to spite the queen, to keep from her this one thing she so desperately wanted. It was only her vanity, after all, that had set off this tirade. Because Cinder had made that one foolish comment at the ball, suggesting that Levana wasn’t beautiful after all.
Kai massaged his temple, knowing that he had to give up thse thoughts. Cinder had to be found, and soon, before millions were murdered in her place.
It was all politics now. Pros and cons, give and take, trades and agreements. Cinder had to be found, Levana had to be appeased, Kai had to stop acting cheated and indignant and start acting like an emperor.
Whatever he’d once felt for Cinder—or thought he’d felt for her—was over.
Scarlet, Chapter Fourteen.
While he’ll ask himself what Cinder’s intentions with him must have been, he doesn’t actually take any time to ponder it from her perspective. If he had, he should have been able to figure out on his own that Cinder hadn’t fabricated his feelings for her. At the very least he should have had enough reason to doubt she’d manipulated him long before Torin pointed that out to him in Cress.
Kai shrugged uncomfortably. “The problem with that is that even I don’t know if I had legitimate feelings for her, or if it was always just a trick.”
“Your Majesty. The Lunar gift has limitations. If Linh Cinder had been forcing these feelings onto you, then you wouldn’t still be feeling them.”
Cress, Chapter Thirty-Four.
After all, Kai has been glamoured by both Sybil and Levana before. He’s even felt what Cinder’s glamour was like when it got out of her control. He recognized the glamour for what it was when it happened and was able to resist the effects. He knows what that feels like, but he can’t get out of his own wallowing long enough to realize that the vast majority of his interaction with Cinder didn’t come with those feelings.
Levana did not acknowledge her thaumaturge, but her gaze softened, and the world changed. Kai felt that the ground lurched beneath him. That the air had been sucked from the earth’s atmosphere. That the sun had gone black, leaving the ethereal queen the only source of light in the galaxy.
Tears pricked at the back of his eyes.
He loved her. He needed her. He would do anything to please her.
He jabbed his fingernails into his palms as hard as he could, nearly yelping from the pain, but it worked. The queen’s control disintegrated, leaving only the beautiful woman—not the desperate adoration of her.
Cinder, Chapter Twenty.
Which was pretty frustrating for me, because the unfortunate truth is that makes Kai look not only self-centred, but also pretty dense. Having him admit to Cinder near the beginning of Winter that he should have figured out she hadn’t manipulated him, didn’t exactly feel satisfying. Kai is supposed to be smart. We see him being capable and intelligent when it suits the plot, such as when he convinces the Lunars to help him escape during the siege on the Lunar palace, but when being obtuse draws out the drama for the romance, he’s suddenly an idiot. When you have a character who flips between brilliant and dumb as bricks as needed by the plot, they start to feel like a tool and not a person. But a boy’s gotta feel his feelings, I guess.
“While you were busy taunting this poor servant, I sent a comm to my military with the order to open fire as soon as they’re within range. But I will revoke that command once my people have been safely relocated to the ports.”
A woman giggled, but it was high-pitched and anxious. “You would not dare risk an attack while you yourself are in the palace! You and all your Earthen friends would be dead.”
Kai grinned. “You’re right. I wouldn’t attack Artemisia Central. But if I’m not mistaken, most of your homes aren’t in the central dome, are they?”
Winter, Chapter Eighty-Three.
As another example of Kai’s self-centredness, there’s literally a scene in Cress where Kai is talking to his wedding planner and feels guilty because he realizes he’d never considered that woman might have a family. So even Kai admits he’s self-centred.
Kai gulped, surprised at a tinge of guilt. He had never imagined who this woman might be when she left the palace every day. He had never bothered to picture her with a family.
Cress, Chapter Nineteen.
However, and this might shock you, I in no way, shape, or form think Kai being self-centred is a problem for the story. It’s a character flaw, not necessarily a narrative one.
As someone who grew up kind of poor but has had the opportunity to be acquainted with a few people who were born into a lot of money, I can tell you, being a self-centred rich person is totally realistic. Though my acquaintances were generous people who meant well, in many ways they lacked even the capacity to put themselves in the shoes of the average person, let alone a poor person.
So having Kai be self-centred would have been realistic. And it could have done very interesting things both for the sci-fi plot as well as the romance. For example, I wouldn’t have felt nearly so frustrated with all the times Kai suddenly became an idiot if his self-centredness had been a deliberate character flaw. It would have made sense that a normally smart person wasn’t seeing what was right in front of him if we knew that he had this flaw getting in the way.
My subscribers had to know I was going to bring up Avatar: The Last Airbender at some point, but it has an example of making a smart character stupid done well. Zuko isn’t stupid. He’s not. He’s smart, he’s resourceful, he’s competent, he’s tenacious. Even though he frequently fails to capture the avatar, despite the entire Fire Nation navy ending up on the lookout for the avatar, you know, those guys who were competent enough to take over almost the whole world, the person who comes closest to capturing the avatar the most often, is a sixteen-year-old boy with very limited resources. So, no. Zuko is not stupid.
But he makes an awful lot of really, really stupid choices. Yet we know exactly why he makes those choices, which means that instead of us being frustrated with Zuko for being an inconsistent character, we feel bad for him when he makes the wrong choices because we know exactly how hard it is for him to make the right ones. We want to see him overcome the flaws that cause him to make bad decisions, because we care about him. And, in part because of this, Zuko is probably the most beloved character on the show.
The same could have been true for Kai. If Kai’s self-centredness had been a featured part of his character arc, I would have had more trust that Meyer knew what she was doing and would make Kai learn to do better by the end of the series. I would have loved—loved—for Kai’s self-centredness to be an intentional part of his character that he had to overcome to earn Cinder’s forgiveness and trust. Loved, I tell you.
Keep all this in mind, because it’s going to come up again in the final installment of this discussion, but for the rest of this post, let’s talk about Kai’s lacklustre motivation.
Kai is supposed to be motivated to find Princess Selene, but he tends to get too distracted with other things to focus on that goal. It’s not that those other distractions weren’t important for him to deal with, but rather than being obstacles to his motivation, they often overwhelm his motivation altogether. While Kai did have some motivation in Cinder, that goal to find Princess Selene basically falls by the wayside in later books, but even in Cinder, I remember feeling Kai didn’t seem as driven to find the princess as he should have been.
You see, a character’s motivation should drive them through the story. A proactive character actively seeks to accomplish that goal and will break the task down into smaller goals. Little rungs on a ladder, if you will.
In action scenes, the character has a goal to get them one rung closer to achieving their ultimate motivation. Their mini goal can be simple, but it should be there, pushing them through the scene. At the end of the scene, they’ve either gone a rung up the ladder or been pushed a rung back down, but they probably shouldn’t be on the same rung they started at.
In reaction scenes, the character’s goal is to figure out how to get up the next rung. By the end of the scene, they’ll have figured out what they’re going to try, and that will become their goal for the next action scene.
This means that in every scene of the story, the proactive character is constantly pushing forward toward their ultimate goal.
Sometimes making a character proactive is tricky. It’s something I’m struggling with right now as I write about a heroine having an extended, mystical out-of-body experience, who can’t physically interact with the world or the other characters. It happens. But ideally you recognize the problem and find ways to make your character more proactive.
But in Cinder, Kai doesn’t really drive his own story forward.
Again, just as Cinder has so much to deal with that she has no time for a romance, Kai has so much going on, he doesn’t have time to focus on his motivation to find the princess. Rather than being able to focus on climbing the next rung in his ladder, he hands his ladder over to Cinder in the form of his android. He becomes dependent on her getting him up the next rung while he deals with other things.
In fact, this is a bit of a theme with Kai. We never get to see him actively pursue his goal on his own. He is always handing over the work to someone else. Even in scenes from Kai’s POV, his motivation to find the princess is rarely at the top of his mind, and it’s basically never the goal that’s driving him from one scene to the next. It only gets worse in later books when he basically forgets his goal of finding the princess altogether. He spends most of the books reacting to the scheming and warring Queen Levana does, trying to pick up the pieces, not trying to find a way to get a step ahead of her. Not trying to pursue his motivation. And even once he does decide to look for the princess again, any progress he makes always happens off the page. We never get to see him work at it.
Since Kai isn’t actively pursuing his own goal in his own POV chapters, it makes it feel like those chapters exist solely to dump information on the reader.
If Princess Selene truly not only has the potential to save Kai from misery and even probable death, but also has the potential to save all of Earth from intergalactic war, Kai should be thinking about her a lot more than he does. Any time he meets or speaks with Levana, he should be using his diplomatic skills to try to subtly get the queen to confirm or deny his suspicions that the princess still lives. Trying to get clues from her about where the princess might be without giving away that he’s searching for her. Every action he takes should be either in pursuit of his goal or should tell us something about his character—about what lines he will or will not cross in pursuit of that goal.
Yet once he gives Cinder his android to fix, for the most part, that’s that. He does remind Cinder about the android a few times, but he never seeks Cinder out to see how things are coming along. He doesn’t work on a plan B to find the princess in case the android thing doesn’t work out. Doesn’t work on other princess-related projects in the meantime, like coming up with a plan for what happens after he finds the princess. Or a plan for what happens if he discovers the princess is just as evil as her mother and aunt. He’s just waiting for someone to fix his android, and he’s just expecting the princess will solve his problems for him. Again, he’s not proactive.
Kai. Sweetie. I know you can do better than this!
Imagine how much worse we’d feel for Kai having to go ahead with this arranged marriage business if we knew he’d tried everything he could to get the upper hand and get out of the marriage. If he’d actively explored every logical avenue to find the lost princess only to end up thwarted again and again. If he’d ended up accepting Levana’s marriage proposal because it was literally the only thing left he knew how to do to minimize Levana’s destruction.
And here’s another place Kai’s self-centredness shows up. Because if he’s not doing everything he can to find the lost princess and get out of this political marriage, what business does this boy have flirting it up at Cinder in the first place? Don’t toy with a girl’s feelings if you’re not romantically available!
If Kai truly cares about Cinder and wants to be more than friends, he should be all the more motivated to find Princess Selene so he’ll be free to pursue Cinder. But, alas, Kai comes across as caring more that Cinder puts a smile on his face than whether or not he’s actually available to return the favour.
Which I find interesting. If you've read all of The Lunar Chronicles, including Stars Above, you're probably familiar with the short story "The Mechanic." It retells the story of Cinder and Kai's first meeting, but from Kai's POV. What's interesting about this is how excited I got reading this short story. For the first time, it seems, we get to see Kai actively pursuing his goal. It's on his mind. He actually spends time thinking about it, and he seems eager to accomplish it.
Not only that, but we also get to see Kai thinking of Cinder, finding her cute, and we even get our first reason to understand why Kai thinks Cinder treats him like an ordinary person---because she doesn't stand up before bowing to him once she recognizes him. Unbeknownst to him, it's because she doesn't have her cyborg foot attached, but at least now it starts to make sense why Kai thinks Cinder doesn't treat him like a prince.
In this short story we see so much more of Kai being proactive, of Kai having a teensy bit of an emotional connection with Cinder, and we even get so much more of Kai's personality than we did in the main series.
I don't know if it's that Meyer had improved so much as a writer by the time she wrote this story or if she's simply better at short stories with a singular focus than she is at juggling all the plotlines and details necessary in a novel. But it would have been so wonderful to have Kai's POV chapters in the series feel like the same Kai we read from in this short story. But that wasn't the case.
Whew! That was a long discussion, but with the conclusion of part three, we’ve finally discussed the major problems I had with The Lunar Chronicles. I still mostly enjoyed Cinder, but the more I thought about those problems, the more they pestered me until I thought about how they might be fixed.
So that’s what we’re going to talk about in the final part of this discussion. How could these problems potentially have been mitigated? How do we fix Kai? How do we make the romance and sci-fi plots work together instead of against each other? Tune in for part four, coming soon.
What are your thoughts? Did you like The Lunar Chronicles? Did you notice any of these problems I brought up, or did you like the series as it was? Who’s your favourite pairing from the series? Me, I really wanted to like Cinder and Kai, but given how the writing worked out, I think I’m going to have to say Cress and Thorne. Their romance was handled better than any other in the series, in my opinion, and they were just cute.
If you liked this post, stick around to see when part four drops, and I will see you next time.