Note: There are necessarily a few spoilers for the first volumes in this series, but none for this installment.
Winter is the fifth book in a fairytale retelling/science fiction series known collectively as “The Lunar Chronicles.” Whereas many continuations of young adult sagas can be painful to experience in light of the promise of the first book in the series, I have not felt that disappointment at all with Marissa Meyer. Each of her books joins a separate fairytale retelling into a connected whole, which takes place in a dystopian future in which the people of Earth are struggling to maintain independence from the mind-controlling, genetically-enhanced people of Luna (i.e., the moon).
The first book, Cinder, focuses on a 16-year-old girl who is meant to evoke Cinderella. Her status as a hated cyborg is exposed when she loses her bionic foot at the ball marking the inauguration of Prince Kai. (Cyborgs are humans who are part metal, having received artificial parts to compensate for damaged flesh. There is a great deal of prejudice against cyborgs, who are considered second-class citizens.)
The second book, Scarlet, is a reworking of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Scarlet is a red-haired teen who will discover an unexpected connection to Cinder. Scarlet also meets and falls in love with Wolf, a former Lunar soldier whose genetic material had been spliced with that of a wolf to add to his deadliness. In a second subplot, Cinder gets caught and thrown in jail, but escapes with the help of a fellow prisoner, Carswell Thorne. At the end of Book Two, the ragtag band of Cinder, Thorne, Scarlett, Wolf, and Cinder’s Artificial Intelligence BFF Iko, is circling the Earth in Thorne’s spaceship as they plot a way to overcome the evil Lunar Queen Levana.
The third book in the series, Cress, introduces Cress (short for Crescent Moon), who is our Rapunzel. Cress has spent most of her life isolated on a satellite orbiting the earth, plying her computer hacking skills at the demand of her nasty Lunar mistress in order to help the Lunar government spy on Earth. Cress has gotten caught up in the real-life exploits of the dramatic escape of Cinder and her comrades; what if this handsome Carswell Thorne could help her escape as well? She reaches out to Cinder and her companions, but everything goes wrong.
In Fairest, a novella which I found to be the weakest in the series, we learn the background of Queen Levana, and why she turned into such an evil person and wicked stepmother.
As Winter begins, Emperor Kaito (“Kai”) of the Eastern Commonwealth on Earth has agreed to marry Lunar Queen Levana in exchange for her ceasing military attacks on the Earth. In addition, upon being crowned Empress, she promised to release an antidote to the lunar plague that has devastated Earthens. (Years earlier, Levana had secretly unleashed the plague on Earth, with the idea that when Earth was at its most desperate, the people would look to her for the cure, which of course she had as well. She reasoned that when she gave them the antidote, they would be “unspeakably grateful” to their new empress.”)
But Cinder and her idealistic group of fairytale heroes know that Levana wants to kill Kai and take over the planet, which will be disastrous. So they plan to kidnap Prince Kai on the day of his wedding, and then Cinder will reveal herself as the long lost Princess Selene of Luna who has come back to take the rightful crown from Levana.
Yet all of these plans create a great deal of unease for Kai and Cinder. In the previous book, Cress, they had revealed their feelings to each other, as well as their mutual fears. As Cinder said:
“…everyone expects me to be strong and brave, but I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Kai knew exactly how she felt.
As is evident from the title of this installment, a great deal of focus in this book is on Winter, the stepdaughter of Levana, whose “Snow White” is more realistic, more tragic, and more endearing than the original fairy tale version.
Sir Jacin Clay, the royal guard who loves Winter and who played a large role in Cress, explains the actions he took in that book and attempts to redeem himself and help the cause of Winter and Cinder, both of whom are in Levana’s sights.
Meanwhile, Cinder tries to rally the people of Luna, telling them:
“Help me. Fight for me. And I will be the first ruler in the history of Luna who will also fight for you.”
Cinder knows a lot of people have died and will die if they are to defeat Levana, and as much as she thinks it is necessary, she is overwhelmed with guilt. Wolf tries to ease Cinder’s remorse:
“No one is dying for you. If anyone dies today it will be because they finally have something to believe in. Don’t you even think about taking that away from them now.”
Of course, little goes as planned, especially since the Lunars have the weapon of mind control at their disposal. Some of Cinder’s group are imprisoned, and most of them end up very damaged, at least physically. But nothing can destroy their spirit or heart. And since this is a collection of fairytales, one can expect at least some triumph of the good in the end.
Nevertheless, unlike with the Jack Reacher hero in books by Lee Child, these superheroes do not go unscathed in their efforts to restore justice.
Discussion: Meyer does an expert job of respecting the integrity of each fairy tale arc while at the same time meshing it with the other fairy tale plot lines, so that it seems as if they unquestionably belong together. The characters are eminently likable, and the books are quite clever, romantic, and entertaining.
The female heroines in particular are, as Kai thinks about Cinder, “[b]rave, determined . . . smart, resourceful, sarcastic . . . .” They are inspiring role models to say the least. Kai is good-hearted and handsome, but his positive qualities are overwhelmed by those of the other main characters – he is lucky to have them on his side.
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite character, but I would have to go with Scarlet, who is strong, fierce, courageous, and loyal.
Or maybe it would be Iko, who adds humor and pathos, as well as loyalty and bravery, to her Pinocchio/Isaac-Asimov-robot-like persona. Then there are Cress and Winter, both so vulnerable and sweet in spite of everything, and yet, also brave and smart.
As for the males, you have to love Wolf, with his alpha mate devotion to Scarlet. And sarcastic Carswell Thorne – every bit the hero Cress thinks he is, even though he isn’t so convinced of that himself.
It’s just a hard call to pick a favorite character!
Evaluation: Winter brings all the stories together into a rousing and action-packing ending that will satisfy most readers except those like me who wish the series could go on even longer.
This is an excellent series overall; I loved it. The aspects of fairy tale retellings keep it from being too dark, and there is enough romance and suspense mixed into the dystopian landscape to please aficionados of a number of genres. I hate to say this is a “happy” series given that large numbers of people die or get harmed, and yet, the tone is – well, happy. These are feel-good stories, with romance, danger, the belief that a brave individual can indeed make a difference, and the promise of fairytale endings.
Note: These books are not really standalones, but should be read in order. (And in fact, I felt the need to reread Cress before starting this one.)
Published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan, 2015