• Raelyn Teague

Romance in "The Lunar Chronicles" |Lunar Chronicles Analysis Part 1|


Hello, fair readers! I thought we'd do a little case study today. In the latter end of 2020, a friend of mine told me I should read The Lunar Chronicles and lent me her copy of Cinder. I’ve finally finished the series, and I have some thoughts. Mainly that, while I did enjoy the series for the most part, I feel like Marissa Meyer wrote herself into a few structural problems with these books.


On this blog I usually prefer to focus on things books did well and lift up my fellow authors. In fact, even though I really wanted to talk about this series after reading it, it took a lot of convincing myself to make this post. However, I feel The Lunar Chronicles struggled with some issues a lot of us writers do. Because The Lunar Chronicles was such a popular series, I thought it provided a unique opportunity for us to learn some useful lessons together. So let’s discuss it!


This post is undoubtedly going to get long, so I’m going to divide it into a few parts. Before we get started with the first part, here are some obligatory disclaimers:


First, this discussion is a case study and not a review. I’m not going to offer a star rating or talk about the quality of Meyer's prose. I’m going to focus on what I personally felt was a structural issue and only address other features if and when they become relevant to that discussion.


Second, because I do prefer to discuss positive examples and hate to ruthlessly tear apart other authors’ work, I feel the need to say I mostly had a good time with this series. As in, when I finished borrowing my friend’s copy of Cinder, I immediately ordered the rest of the series and have no regrets. But, much like a picture frame that is only slightly kilter often makes me want to fix it even more than a frame that’s totally off balance, some of these issues frustrated me because it felt like Meyer was so close. She’d laid really good groundwork, which is actually pretty darn good for a debut series. But any more praise and this really will turn into a review. So. To summarize: though much of this case study will focus on struggles the series had, none of this is meant to dis the books, fans of the books, or Meyer.


Third, there have been accusations of cultural appropriation for this series. I’m not going to address any of that in these posts, mostly because I’m not sure I’m the right person to do so, but I want to acknowledge those accusations. If that’s something you want to know more about, definitely look for more authoritative voices than me.


Lastly, spoilers ahoy. The heaviest focus for these posts will be on Cinder, but I will bring up major plot points from the other books. You’ve been warned.


With that out of the way, let’s dive in!



When I first read Cinder, I had fun with it, but something bothered me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I pinpointed a few issues that frustrated me, but I didn’t realize at first that they were symptoms of a larger problem. In fact, it wasn’t until I started Scarlet that I finally realized what was bothering me.


Marissa Meyer doesn’t quite seem sure of what genre she’s writing.


It’s clear that The Lunar Chronicles is meant to be a mashup. But what’s the spine of this nebulous organism? Is Meyer writing a sci-fi adventure with a side of romance? Or is she writing a romance with a side of sci-fi adventure? Because those are two structurally different things.



While later books fall a little more tidily into sci-fi adventures, when it comes to the first book in the series, it seems like Meyer is trying to have it both ways and write a book that is equal parts sci-fi adventure and romance. Is that even doable?


Yes. Yes, it is. However, trying to juggle two plots, particularly two plots from two different genres, in equal proportion can be a challenge. If you aren’t careful in how you weave those plots, they can distract from each other rather than strengthen each other. I feel like this was exactly the problem Meyer had in Cinder.


But then again, these books did really well. So she’s probably laughing all the way to the bank as I make this post.


However, I think Meyer could have elevated these books to another level with a little extra work. So let’s take a look at why I feel these books have a structural problem and how that impacts the rest of the story.


For this first post, let’s focus on:


THE ROMANCE

Honestly, I think the romance is what Meyer was most interested in writing. At least at first. However, I didn’t always find the romances to be very compelling.


I have a lot to get into regarding the romance in Cinder, but I actually wanted to begin this by discussing how the romances were handled in the sequels and why it seemed Meyer couldn’t quite decide what genre she was writing.



Each sequel sets up a heroine and a romance as being important and central to the story. Yet the sci-fi plotline often interrupts the romances and pushes them out of the way. Cress and Winter, despite the romances being a draw, are much more properly sci-fi adventures than a 50/50 balance between adventure and romance, yet even they eventually felt like they were getting derailed. Why? Well, Cinder always has to bring all her drama and take centre stage.


Here’s a tip for you: know who your heroine is, centre her in all the major plot points of the story, and be careful and purposeful in how you title your book.


While the rest of the books in the series may have been titled Scarlet, Cress, and Winter, implying those characters should have been the focus of those books, the series is about Cinder. While the other characters may get the limelight in their books for a while, even for most of the book, Cinder tends to push them out of the spotlight with her sci-fi drama before the end. The diva.


In fact, the very last chapter of every book is from Cinder’s perspective. While it isn’t always bad to start or end a book in the POV of a character who isn’t your main protagonist, you do need to consider what impression that will leave on the reader and whether that will undermine your main character’s journey. In The Lunar Chronicles, rather than Scarlet, Cress, or Winter getting to wrap up their story on their own, it’s always Cinder. Cinder gets the last word. The final impression. The final send-off.


If Cinder had remained the heroine of each book, having her be such a focus for the final chapters would obviously have been fine. Had these books had a proper ensemble cast with no true singular capital-H Heroine, that also would have been fine. But neither of those is the case. Each book sets up a new heroine and a romance arc as the central focus, and Cinder kicks it out of her way before the end.


The diva!



Scarlet and Wolf actually get to spend a whole day together, golly gee, but their romance keeps getting interrupted by the sci-fi plot. Whenever I felt like Scarlet and Wolf’s storyline was just about to get me invested, the story would cut to Cinder’s storyline about the lost princess shenanigans. Then, just when I was getting interested in the sci-fi stuff, we’d cut back to Scarlet and Wolf, only for me to feel like their romance was having to rebuild momentum from square one all over again. And I’d argue it’s Cinder more than Scarlet who ends up saving the day at the end of the book, using her Lunar mind powers. She definitely ends up saving Scarlet and Wolf anyway.


I was worried that each consecutive book in the series was going to get worse for this as Meyer introduced more characters who would inevitably interrupt the romances. And, well, they did and didn’t get worse for this.



I was pleasantly surprised in Cress to find I liked the way that romance was handled much better. To a point. Meyer did a good job of showing why Cress and Thorne worked well together as a couple, despite having to share their book with more characters than Cinder and Kai or Scarlet and Wolf had to. Even though this book is more properly a sci-fi adventure than romance, Meyer still centres Cress and Thorne in the book well for the first two-thirds. It’s their story, even if Cinder sometimes gets chapters devoted to herself.


However, once Cinder plans this heist to kidnap Kai, Cress and Thorne mostly get demoted to sidekicks in Cinder’s tale rather than being the driving force in their own anymore. Their character arcs and romance mostly get put on hold. And I found this disappointing.


If the book is named Cress, let her be the main character all the way through. Cinder can still plan a heist. They can still kidnap Kai. But the events that happen should mostly be told through Cress’ perspective. It should be predominantly Cress’ decisions and actions that drive the plot forward. Let her be the heroine who makes a decision at the climax of the book that leads directly to its outcome. Don’t let Cinder take over.



Same deal in Winter. Rather than seeing the revolution predominantly through Winter’s eyes and Winter’s contributions, Cinder once again takes centre stage and pushes Winter and Jacin almost entirely out of their own story, apart from a scant few interjecting chapters from their POVs. When Winter leaves a second time to get reinforcements for Cinder that will end up saving the day, we don’t get to see any of that. I actually forgot that’s what she was off doing, and it’s her book! Winter just shows up Gandalf-style to save Helm’s Deep after a long absence. That worked in The Lord of the Rings because the film wasn’t titled Gandalf.


If these books were meant to have an ensemble cast, they should have been titled differently and shouldn’t have set up a main heroine for each book. Rather, they should have divided the focus and POV chapters more evenly among the cast. Having Cinder hijack the books means the sci-fi story disrupts the romances.


But Cinder and Kai had their book all to themselves. So surely that romance was better balanced with the sci-fi.


Well…



Cinder’s romance with Kai was actually the least compelling in the series to me. I remember seeing the number of pages left in the book get fewer and fewer and thinking there was no way I was going to feel satisfied if these characters actually ended up together by the end.


So, it’s probably good that they didn’t. But it isn’t good that I didn’t want them to end up together.


There are a few reasons why this romance wasn’t as compelling as it could have been, but a big one is that Cinder and Kai’s romance doesn’t get a chance to develop any depth.


If soulmates were determined by how much time a heroine spends with other characters, then pucker up, sweetie, because Cinder’s soulmate is Dr. Erland. She spent way more time developing a relationship with the doctor than she ever did with Kai, and I’m talking about time both on the page and in their own time. Little of what time Cinder and Kai did spend together felt like it deepened their connection. They don’t get to go on a date or get to know each other. Cinder and Kai mostly bump into each other by chance a few times. If you added up the time these characters spent in each other’s company, I’d honestly be surprised if they’d spent more than an hour together.


Suddenly Scarlet and Wolf’s one-day romance feels pretty solid.


It felt like few of Cinder and Kai’s conversations got very deep. They discuss politics, but that always came across as exposition, not the kind of political discussion where you discover a character’s values or how they see the world differently from other people. So Kai hates the Lunar queen? Great. So does literally every other Earthen!


Mostly Kai flirts at Cinder (and I do mean “at”), and Cinder keeps him at arms’ length. It was hard to understand why these characters were supposed to be good for each other. Any emotional connection the book told us was there felt unearned.


There's a scene in Cress where Kai tells Torin why he likes Cinder. He mentioned how she showed so much emotion around him and treated him like a normal person. He mentions how she’d joke with him. He mentions how awesome she was at fixing things. There's an argument to be made that he thought Cinder was good at fixing things merely because she was able to fix his android at all where others weren't, but he'd never witnessed her doing anything technical or challenging with her work, just giving her projects a hard smack. So my response to Kai’s confession was, “Kai, I was there. You’re delusional.”


Kai rolled his eyes. “Ironically, I think that might be why I liked Cinder so much in the first place.”
“That she couldn’t disguise her emotions?”
“That she didn’t try. …This completely normal girl, working this completely mundane job. She was always covered in dirt or grease and she was so brilliant when she was fixing things. And she joked about stuff with me, like she was talking to a normal guy, not a prince. Everything about her seemed so genuine.”
Cress, Chapter Thirty-Four.

Honestly, Kai’s description of Cinder is closer to how I’d describe Cress. Doesn’t control her emotion. Brilliant with her work. Yeah. Cress! Compared to characters like Scarlet, Wolf, Cress, Thorne, Iko, Winter, or even Kai himself, Cinder did not come across as an expressive person.


It seems a stretch to say Cinder showed much emotion when we know she held back. We can’t say she accidentally blushed or shed a tear, because the book tells us she can’t physically do those things. While she didn’t prostrate herself before Kai crying “Your Majesty” all day (though she only stopped calling him “Your Highness” when he threatened to give her a royal order not to, and even after then it slips out of her sometimes), we know she held back in part because she knew he wasn’t an ordinary guy. And while Cinder did eventually end up making a few jokes, for the bulk of the novel she was pretty stiff around Kai.



“I’ll see you out,” said the prince, flashing his wrist by the scanner. The door breezed open.
Cinder held up her gloved hands, the wrench locked in her grip. “No, no, that’s fine. I can find my way.”
“Are you sure? It’s no trouble?”
“Yes. Positive. I’m sure you have very important…royal…government… research things. To discuss. But thank you. Your Highness.” She attempted an awkward bow, glad that at least this time she had both feet firmly attached.
Cinder, Chapter Fourteen.


Cinder is not a tiny book, so why don’t Cinder and Kai have enough time to spend with each other and fall in love? One of the answers I’ve come to is the same problem the other books had: the sci-fi plotline keeps interrupting the romance.


Cinder has to plan an escape from her horrible mother. She has to fix up her magic pumpkin. I mean car. She has to deal with a sister dying from the letumosis pandemic. She has to spend time as a science experiment. She has to fix Kai’s android. She has to piss off a queen. She has to learn she’s a long lost Lunar princess and Earth’s best hope at peace. She has to find out why her powers don’t work. She has to speak to a Lunar spy to find out Kai’s in danger. She has to have a showdown with the evil queen. There’s so much going on!


These things aren’t bad in and of themselves—it’s good when a heroine has more to do than pine after her love interest—but due to the way these were utilized, for a novel that seems to want to put so much focus on the romance, Cinder spends an awful lot of time apart from Kai and focused on other things. Rather than Kai and Cinder getting to have some meaningful, emotional interactions that showed us why they are good for each other, often the most emotion Cinder shows for Kai is when he isn’t even there and she’s watching him on the netscreen.


Even when the characters face big emotional struggles, Kai and Cinder don’t know each other well enough to offer anything but the same emotional support any stranger might offer. And these moments are usually cut short because the story has to quickly move on to give us exposition and deal with the sci-fi problems.


Take the death of Kai’s father for an example. When Cinder finds out about the death, she offers the same quick condolence everyone else who passes Kai in the hallway offers, but the book allows no time for a real emotional connection. Almost immediately, Kai brushes aside the death of his father, a man he supposedly loved very deeply, so he can inform Cinder about the evil Lunar queen’s impending visit. There’s no time for mourning. We have to get back to the sci-fi plot now, thank you very much.


She clapped a hand to her mouth.
Kai seemed surprised, but the look quickly faded. He ducked his head, his black bangs falling into his eyes. “Good guess.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
He tucked his hands into his pockets and gazed down the hallway. Only now did Cinder notice the faint rim of red around his eyes.
“I wish my father’s death were the worst of it.”
She cleared her throat. “You, uh, said something was worse? Before?”
When Kai said nothing for an awkward moment, she shrugged. “Never mind. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, it’s all right. You’ll find out soon enough.” He lowered his voice, inclining his head toward her as they walked. “The Lunar queen informed us this morning that she is coming to the Commonwealth on a diplomatic mission. Supposedly.”
Cinder, Chapter Eighteen.

Moments like these, like the death of Kai’s father or the death of Peony, were huge missed opportunities for these characters to bond. Imagine if the death of Kai’s father had been treated with a teensy bit more weight. Kai telling Torin in Cress about how Cinder treated him like an ordinary person instead of a prince might have made sense if this scene had allowed for emotional bonding between him and Cinder.


Imagine if everyone in the palace said to Kai, “Sorry for your loss, but we’re in a crisis, and we need you to put on your big boy pants and be our emperor right now.” But when Cinder finds out about the death, she pulls Kai aside to a private corner and tells him, “Hey, you don’t have to be the emperor in front of me. Let's take a moment. A hug, a chat, a minute to breathe, whatever you need."


Thinking about how this scene could have gone actually got me thinking of While You Were Sleeping, (the K-drama, not the Sandra Bullock film). Spoiler warning for late in the series.



At the funeral for Jae Chan's father figure, Jae Chan leaves to go have a cry away from the eyes of others, but Hong Joo arrives to sit with and comfort him. The scene is cut together with flashbacks that are a mirror to this scene, where their younger selves' roles were reversed. This scene shows us how these two characters are repeatedly there for each other and that the support is mutual.


I'm not trying to say that Kai needed to have a cry for a scene like this to work in The Lunar Chronicles. Maybe that's not how he grieves, but give us something where these two characters can actually connect. It wouldn’t have had to take up pages and pages. It could have been a few short sentences, yet there wasn’t time for these characters to have even short meaningful moments, because every interaction between them was either aimless flirting, exposition, or getting sci-fi information to Cinder.


And I actually want to go back a page or so in the book and talk about these other people in the hallway I mentioned who offer Kai their condolences, because this scene wasn't just a missed opportunity. It was actually a bit worse than that. This is how those exchanges happen:


"Your Highness?" interrupted a youngish woman with black hair that hung in a tight braid. Her gaze was fixed on Prince Kai, all sympathy. "I am so sorry."
Cinder's gaze shifted to Kai, who tipped his head at the woman. "Thank you, Fateen." And kept walking.
Cinder frowned.
Not a dozen steps later, they were halted again by a man carrying a handful of clear vials in his fists. "My condolences, Your Highness."
Cinder, Chapter Eighteen.


Now let's take another look at what Cinder says to Kai:



"I'm so sorry. I didn't know."


See how what Cinder says is effectively the same as what this Fateen and man with vials say to Kai? Why does this matter?


One of the great things about having more than one character in a book, one of their purposes, is to compare and contrast them with our other characters. To show how they think differently, act differently, how their relationships with other characters differ, or how those relationships change over time.


In the case of the funeral scene in While You Were Sleeping, it's Hong Joo, not anyone else, who notices Jae Chan leaving the funeral. It's Hong Joo who cares enough to go after him. And, perhaps especially important, it's Hong Joo who Jae Chan allows to stay with him in a vulnerable moment when by this point in the show we know that he would not have allowed the same comfort from anyone else. This scene shows us not only that these characters are supportive of each other, but also that their support is unique from the support of other characters in the story. It shows us why these characters are a good fit romantically.


But what do we have in Cinder? Take another look at who these two people in the hallway offering their condolences to Kai are.


"Your Highness?" interrupted a youngish woman with black hair that hung in a tight braid. Her gaze was fixed on Prince Kai, all sympathy. "I am so sorry."
Cinder's gaze shifted to Kai, who tipped his head at the woman. "Thank you, Fateen." And kept walking.
Cinder frowned.
Not a dozen steps later, they were halted again by a man carrying a handful of clear vials in his fists. "My condolences, Your Highness."
Cinder, Chapter Eighteen.

The descriptions these characters are given are short and impersonal. Only one of these characters is given a name, but she isn't someone the reader really knows, not now and not later in the series either. She's a stranger. These are effectively two faceless people to the reader.


Yet Cinder's offer of support to Kai is the same as theirs. In this moment, whether Meyer intended this or not (and I assume not), the narrative is telling us that Cinder's relationship with Kai is on essentially the same level as these two faceless characters the book doesn't deem important enough for the reader to know, two characters the book doesn't care about.


For full transparency, I will say that shortly after this moment is where Kai asks, or demands really, that Cinder call him by his name and not his title, showing that at least Kai wants to have a closer relationship with Cinder. However, Cinder's reaction to his demand comes across not as welcoming this shift in their relationship but of being uncomfortable with it.


He met her gaze, surprised, as if he’d forgotten who he was speaking with. Then, “You can call me Kai.”
She blinked. “Excuse me?”
“No more ‘Your Highness.’ I get enough of that from…everyone else. You should just call me Kai.”
“No. That wouldn’t be—”
“Don’t make me turn it into a royal command.” He hinted at a smile.
Cinder scrunched her shoulders up by her ears, suddenly embarrassed. “All right. I suppose.”
“Thank you.” He cocked his head toward the hall. “We should go, then.”
She had nearly forgotten that they were in the research hall, surrounded by people, everyone politely ignoring them as if they were not even there. She started down the hallway, wondering if she’d spoken out of place, and awkward beside the prince who was suddenly just Kai. It didn’t feel right.
Cinder, Chapter Eighteen.

To have a scene showing how Cinder's relationship with Kai is no different than his relationship with random NPCs, to then have Kai try to deepen their relationship only for Cinder to be uncomfortable with that, means that the death of Kai's father wasn't only a missed opportunity, but it also reinforced that Kai and Cinder don't yet have a relationship for the reader to root for. To then cut this attempt at a romantic beat short so the story can swiftly move onto the sci-fi and the Lunar queen problem, means Cinder and Kai's romance was not given the treatment it deserved for a book that wanted to focus on it so much.


If Meyer wanted the romance in Cinder to be worthy of sharing equal importance with the sci-fi adventure, she probably should have found a way to have these characters interact more often and on a deeper level.


But maybe that’s all because Meyer actually intended for the sci-fi adventure to be the focus after all.


Well… That’s what we’re going to discuss in the next post. Spoiler alert: the sci-fi plot had struggles too.


That’s it for this first part of the discussion. Have you read The Lunar Chronicles? What did you think about the romance in Cinder? It’s okay if you loved it. No judgement here. Who’s your favourite character?


Stay tuned for part two of this discussion, coming soon. I also have a new worldbuilding episode in the works, so prepare for that, and I will see you next time.



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