Thursday, February 6, 2014

Cress by Marissa Meyer




Title: Cress
Author: Marissa Meyer
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Rating: WARTY!

I've already reviewed the first in the Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder and the second, Scarlet. I have to say that whilst I was knocked out by Cinder I was left really flat by Scarlet, barely finding it a worthy read, so I went into this one hoping for another real cracker of a novel like the first one was, but I was let down again.

I was very much disappointed in the poor quality of the writing here. Here's a couple of quick examples up front, with more to come down the road: Meyer is yet another YA writer who seriously in need of an anatomy lesson. Here it is again: vertebra is the singular, vertebrae is the plural! Oh yeah, and as long as we're on the topic, it's 'biceps', not bicep. Is this the best that "Big Publishing" can offer? Where were the beta readers who Meyer praises in her acknowledgments? Where was the editor she also praises? How much does that editor get paid and why? What's the point of subjugating yourself to all of that if you get so poor a return for allowing the publishing industry to walk all over you?

I don't do book covers because this is a blog about writing and the writer rarely has any influence on the book's cover (or even over the title on too many occasions). This is yet another good reason to self-publish! Having said that, this cover is one more illustration (forgive the pun) of the well-established principle that cover artists never read the novels which they depict. Either that or they do indeed read it and are just as artistically trampled upon by "Big Publishing" as the author is. Cress's hair is twice as long on the cover as it actually is in the novel, and is she naked on the cover?! And what's that down her back that looks like an Official Wear™ National Basketball Association® thigh bone? Is this supposed to indicate that Cress has a spine, unlike Scarlet?! Trust me, she doesn't!

Here's one thing up front about Meyer's quadrilogy, and its language: there is no language barrier! No matter who goes where, everyone speaks English! I found that way too much of a stretch. I know they have a "universal" language but that's a patent cop-out because language barriers are raised on very rare occasions - they just never interfere with anyone understanding everyone! I know that Cinder has a translation chip, but it's not like these guys are traveling in the TARDIS which will translate for everyone! So in volume two, we had Cinder, who is Chinese, and Wolf who is Lunar, in France and conversing with everyone in English without even a hint of any problem. In this volume, we have Cinder et al landing in Africa and conversing with the locals in English with no difficulties. I don't know what language the Lunatics are supposed to speak, but evidently that's English, too, because we have Thorne meeting Cress and conversing in English with no language barrier at all. It's all way too convenient.

Anyway, Cress begins right where Scarlet left off, with Scarlet Benoit (Red Riding Hood), Linh Cinder (Cinderella), Carswell Thorne (aka Flynn Rider), and (The Big, yeah, the Bad, and let's hear it: The Big Bad) "Wolf" (yeah, that's right!) flying high - in a spacecraft which unbeknownst to them is being kept off the grid by Cress. It's interesting to note that the ship's name is Rampion, and that Rampion was the name of the plant in some versions of the original Rapunzel story, after which the child is named. In other versions of the story, the edible Rapunzel plant was employed for this purpose, which makes it amusing that 'Cress' is also the name of an edible plant. Cress has appeared briefly before in this series, but her details were sketchy. In this novel they're filled out.

It turns out that Crescent Moon, aka Cress is a hacker, who has lived for seven years on a satellite, spying on Earth for the Lunatics under Queen Levana, who wants to marry wet rag prince Kai and then murder him and dominate the Earth (wait, wasn't this the plot for Thomas the Tank Engine?!). Frankly, the Queen and the prince deserve each other, but I'm pretty sure that's not how this series is going to play out....

A word about Earthen! Meyer uses 'Earthen' repeatedly to signify something connected with Earth, but it reminds me of 'earthen-ware' - like baked clay pottery! I have no idea where she got this term from or why she thought it appropriate. It's far better than 'Terran' which so many sci-fi stories employ, and which frankly sucks green wieners, but 'Earthen' really isn't that much better. She needs a new term. Let's work on that!

And while we're on the topic of two kingdoms, let me say about the Moon: it has no atmosphere, therefore you cannot see a shooting star on the Moon. That is, unless the lunatics have developed an atmosphere, in which case, how do they generate it and how do they make it dense enough to breathe, since the Moon isn't possessed of sufficient gravity to even retain it let alone accumulate it at density? There will be more on the plot-destroying Lunar gravity later in this review, but since Meyer's so-called Lunar Chronicles has now, in three volumes, not only failed to venture onto the Moon, but also completely failed to relay anything of utility about the Lunar society, we have no idea. I assume volume four will take care of that, but given volumes two and three, who knows?

This 'Cress was raised on the Moon' thing makes no sense in the way Meyer executes it. The Moon is the largest satellite in the solar system in comparison with its planet (and actually the fifth largest in real terms), but it is still only one quarter the diameter of Earth and only 60% the density of Earth. Its gravity is therefore one-sixth of Earth's. This means that a sixty kilogram (130 pounds rounded, near enough) person (by Earth's measurement) will weight only ten kilograms (very roughly 20 pounds) on the Moon. Recall that Cress is raised for roughly half her lifetime on the Moon in this comparatively reduced gravity. She spends the rest of her life in a satellite which has artificial gravity, and there's no reason whatsoever for that satellite to be set to any level of gravitational pull other than the Moon's, yet when Cress arrives on Earth she shows absolutely no stress at all from the fact that effectively she now weighs six times what she has done throughout her entire life to that point! That "20 pound" girl now weighs 130 pounds. Yes, she would notice it! In fact, she'd be debilitated by it. She would be severely handicapped, yet here she is hiking dunes in the Sahara with little more than burning thighs as a consequence of suddenly weighing six times her weight for the first time in her life. Bad call, Meyer! Bad beta readers! Bad editor!

Anyway, once Cinder & crew re-establish contact with Cress, they resolve to rescue her from her prison up high. This "rescue" turns out to be something of a disaster with the crew of the Rampion doing one stupid-ass thing after another (although overall, this action scene isn't too bad, broadly speaking; it's the final action scene which sucks). In the end all they manage to do is to exchange Cress for Scarlet, who is swiftly transported as a hostage to the Moon where, no doubt, she and we will meet Winter. Now they're split into three groups, with Cress, Cinder, Wolf, and an apparently defecting pilot of the Lunatics' ship in the segment which lands in Africa to have Cinder's Lunatic doctor Erland take care of Wolf's bullet wounds - yes, they were firing actual bullets in a space ship with no sign of damage to the ship much less explosive decompression....

The third split consists of Thorne and Cress (who is now utterly in instadore with Thorne for no apparent reason whatsoever), who land in North Africa, and Thorne becomes blinded in the process, due to a bump on the back of his head. This is technically feasible since the occipital lobe, which processes vision, is right at the back of the skull just above the spine. This is also a great argument against intelligent design, when you think about it. The most critical sense in humans is vision, so no intelligent designer would put the processor so far from the receptors. The occipital lobe ought to be at the front of the skull right behind the eyes if humans were intelligently designed.

But not to get too far off track, Meyer spits out some mumbo-jumbo later in the novel about optic nerve damage and some magical stem cell cure from Erland which can fix his eyes by means of eye-drops. Say what?!! Meyer's inane waffling on the topic makes makes zero sense whatsoever and completely drops this injury from plausible into fantasy-land. Mythbusters would declare this claim "BUSTED"! I have to ask, "Why?" Not why she lards up this injury with unhealthy dollops of crazy, but why she actually has Thorne blinded in the first place. It contributes nothing to the story, and it contributes nothing to Thorne and Cress bonding. It's like she tossed a coin, or threw a dart into a dart board covered with wild and wacky ideas for her third volume and the dart happened to stick into one which said, "Hey, let's blind our hero and see where that goes!" Trust me, it goes nowhere.

That's not the only thing upon which Meyer trips in this volume. First of all, it makes no sense to the plot have the team split up and then get reunited not that long afterwards, yet this diversion occupies a space of some two hundred pages (interspersed with other action) of non-activity which could have been completely excised from this novel, and it wouldn to have affected a single thing that happened. Again, it's like Meyer was following some sort of rigid auto-plot generator without actually considering whether what she was planning made any sense. The split does nothing to move the story forward. It does nothing to bond Cress and Thorne, or to have them get to know each other any better. It does nothing save eat up paper with nothing interesting, no action, no humor, and neither important digression nor interesting sub-plot. It's a waste of two hundred pages. I guess if you figure that the novel costs over three cents per page, and if those two hundred were cut out, you'd be paying five cents per page, you're really better off?! Maybe it's a bonus deal: Buy now and get two hundred free pages! Guaranteed organic plot-free pages! It does serve one important purpose, I suppose: that of revealing what a total jerk Thorne is.

The first thing the blinded Thorne does is to slice off Cress's hair without even asking her if this is what she wants. Wilting violet Cress submits to this rape without even challenging it. This begs the entire question as to why Meyer put Cress in this position in the first place: why give her the long hair? If it's just to make a Rapunzel of her and nothing else, then what a complete bust of an artifice that was! I guess it's no more of a rip-off than Scarlet's limp red hoodie. At least there was something packaged with Cinder's robotic aspects; they tie into the overall story. You can't say that about either Cress or Scarlet.

This thing with the hair bothered me because it was such an abuse. Meyer tries to "justify" Thorne's assault upon Cress's person by having Cress marvel at how light her head is now without the hair. And that's it! So what does Meyer expect us to believe? That Cress secretly hated her long hair but was too unmotivated to deal with it for almost a decade on the satellite? That Cress is such a piece of model clay that any guy can do whatever he wants with her and she'll rationalize and approve of the action? That Cress had all the grooming apparatus she needed, including the means to trim her nails, but nothing with which to cut her hair? This makes no sense and is clearly nothing but a cheap ruse on Meyer's part, to turn Cress into Rapunzel without actually having to do any thinking about it.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Cress figures out where they are from the stars the first night they're there - that is, she figures out that they're in North Africa but she can't put a better handle on it than that. I guess she didn't gaze at the stars too well. The problem here is that they begin heading towards mountains (real mountains, we're told) but there are no such mountains in North Africa - not when you're heading south or south east from "the Sahara"! If they'd headed north, then there would be real mountains: the Atlas chain, but heading the other way, all they will find is the Tademait plateau, which couldn't be mistaken for the kind of mountains which they're clearly talking about, especially not given that the very highest point is less than a thousand meters. Further south than that is the Congo. Lots of jungle, no mountains.

I found myself wondering time and time again where the heck Cress and Thorne were supposed to be. If you look at pictures of the Sahara, there is very little of it that matches what Meyer describes. Farafra (the place where Cinder ends up, I guess) is actually in Egypt, in the so-called white desert, which is beautiful, but nothing like what Meyer describes - and there are no mountains there! If we assume that the mountains are the Ahaggar range, then there are no nearby dunes through which they could head south towards mountains! There are only some thirteen "dune seas" in North Africa, none of which abut real mountains in any southerly direction.

My best guess would be that they landed in the Idehan Murzuk sand sea, and headed south east towards the mountains of Tibesti, but Idehan Murzuk doesn't feature the roller-coaster dunes which Meyer describes and Tibesti is hardly the mountain range we're told they're heading towards. If Meyer had dropped her focus on those dunes and mountains, she would have done a much better writing job. Most of North Africa isn't dunes. It is desert, however: rocky desert. As wikipedia explains, it consists of dry valleys, gravel plains, stone plateaus, and salt flats. From a writing perspective, Meyer could have used Cress's struggle against the massive gravity of Earth for tiring her out and visiting upon her the requisite suffering, without the need for dunes. Again, this was poorly written.

But it gets worse! As Thorne and Cress crest the dunes, we're explicitly told that Cress realizes it's smarter to weave one's way in between the dunes rather than to exhaust oneself hiking up and down every one (some of which can be almost six hundred feet high), but immediately after we're told this, we're told that Cress starts getting tired as she crests one more hill. Now did they avoid the "hills" or not? Again, this is poorly and inconsistently written.

Meanwhile, back in China, the worthless Kai continues to be obsessed with wedding preparations and focused on nothing else. This is all we hear about - how he has no time for anything but the wedding even though he detests it. This is the purest bullshit and nonsense. Meyer really lets down her story here and continues to convince me that Kai is a waste of skin. Kai has an entire empire (really?) to run. I can't believe that he's so stupid as to neglect his empire whilst focusing solely on the wedding he doesn't even want, but this is precisely what Meyer works so hard to convince us of. You know, I actually can believe it: I can believe that Kai is this bone-headedly stupid because Meyer has repeatedly shown us that he's this abysmally stupid.

When Cress's satellite crashed, her cloaking of the Lunatic forces crashed with it, and Earth's leaders suddenly realize that they've been surrounded by Lunatic ships, staying just far enough outside of Earth's protected zone as to not technically constitute a violation of Lunatic treaties. Instead of focusing on how to defeat these, and focusing on building up his military, and focusing on how to defeat the lunatic mind-controlling powers, Kai spends every day discussing wedding menus and other pointless nuptial trivia, which he could quite easily have delegated. The fact that he doesn't even consider delegating this is yet one more testimony to how abysmally and fundamentally STUPID to his very core this jerk of an Emperor (Emperor? More on this anon) truly is. I already detested this loser before I even started this novel. I can't begin to accurately quantify how much of a massive joke he continues to be after I'd read only a fifth of this third volume!

Since this blog is about writing as much as it is about reading, here's a writing issue: repetition. At times there is a good reason to use repetition in your writing, but it's so easy to overdo it and so easy for the reader to become tired of it or even angered by it. And that's just when you know you're doing it! What about unintentional repetition? Meyer indulges in this on the bottom of page 178, which is the start of chapter 21. A sentence that is also a paragraph there reads, "A table beside her held a tray with the two small bullets the doctor had removed - they seemed too small to have done so much damage." (My emphasis).

My assumption here is that Meyer doesn't know she did this, but perhaps she does know - perhaps she did it on purpose. It just doesn't feel to me that she did, because it doesn't feel like it's her style. I think it slipped by both her and her beta readers, and by her editor too. So you have to ask yourself as a writer, does it even matter? Will anyone notice this, and if they do, will they care? I noticed it because I often do this myself. Not so much in my serious stuff as in my goofy stuff, such as Baker Street, and in one of the short stories in Poem y Granite. I still can't decide if it sounds cool in Meyer's example, or if it just sounds repetitive. Like I said, it's no big deal; it's not going to destroy your novel or your reputation as a writer, but it is something you might want to keep an eye open for, especially if you're doing all your work yourself. If you have no readers and editors to help out (not that they were of any help to Meyer in this case), then you need to be aware of events like this in your writing, and at least note such things even if, on reflection, you choose not to change them.

On the topic of writing well, I got to a point over half-way through Cress and I had realized, with increasing sorrow, that Cress is a moron. Worse, she's not interesting. She's worse than Scarlet, but in a different way. Thorne is also a moron. I appreciated him in Scarlet because he offered some light relief from a story which was patchy at best, and annoying at worst, but even then, I realized that what he offered was only appreciable in the context of a poorly told story. If the novel had been better, Thorne would have appeared worse, I'm sure. In this novel, Thorne is just a jerk.

I know that Meyer has Cress in mind as a rather naïve newbie, but she fails to convey this at all, much less consistently in her writing. Cress's behavior is so uneven and inconsistent as to be just annoying. She's on top of things in some regards and completely stupid in others (not stupid meaning inept, but stupid as in really dumb) and there's no intelligent pattern to her perceptions and actions. Meyer has her discovering Thorne playing poker, through which he wins a "droid", but sitting on his lap is that very droid - which looks very human and very convincing to Cress, who storms out like a six-year-old and ends-up becoming kidnapped. When Thorne figures all this out, he is wracked with guilt! That comes over as so false as to be sickening.

Fortunately, the kidnappers are taking Cress exactly where she needs to go, but how could she be so dumb? She has followed news feeds all her life, and she was raised in the schizophrenic "atmosphere" of the Lunar colonies. She has been subject to manipulative visits from the evil Sybil, yet she has somehow failed to grow even one suspicious bone in her entire body (maybe the suspicious bone is that one in the cover illustration?!). I'm sorry, but that doesn't impress me as good characterization, especially when Meyer depicts her as being so childishly thoughtless here, to boot. Why is it that the women, even the droid Iko, are so consistently depicted in Meyer's quadrilogy as being limp emotional rags, and the men so manly? Honestly? If a guy were writing this, I could in some ways understand, if not condone, such poor and weak characterization, but for a female writer to write her main characters as such pathetic little flibbertigibbets is thoroughly inexcusable. And again, I saw no point whatsoever to this splitting up of the crew and the diversionary sojourn amongst the dunes. It was two hundred boring and wasted pages to me.

I have to say a word about 'droid'. This issues directly from Star Wars, and has entered the lexicon of sci-fi writing. It's very convenient because it has traction and isn't genderist like 'android', from which 'droid' is derived, but the word grates on me! I don't like it. Yeah, I know, picky, picky, picky! (see how I used repetition there?!). I just wish there was a better word. I'm going to work on that!

So to cut a long story short (and to reveal not really a very big spoiler), Cinder succeeds in disrupting the marriage between the worthless Emperor Kai and the laughably "evil" Queen Levana with a really poorly written "dramatic eleventh-hour rescue". I do have one question: over what is Kai the emperor? A country, over which Kai rules, has a king. If you want to be an emperor, then you have to be the ruler over more than one country or state. Victoria was an empress. She ruled over the British empire. Kai is a king at best since he never refers to his 'empire' - he consistently calls it a country. So again, whence 'emperor'?!. Just asking!

So in short, this novel was supposedly about how Cress comes into play and how she and Thorne get it on, but I disliked Thorne from the start in this novel. I knew from volume 2 that he was going to be tied-up with Cress (so to speak!), yet right from the point where they first meet, he hacks off her hair without even checking with her that it's okay to rape and pillage her body like this. This was so symbolic of his taking ownership of her that it made me sick! From that point on Cress becomes nothing more than a pleasure droid in his manipulative hands who doesn't take charge of the story. but who instead is merely buffeted about within in.

For a series written by a woman which is supposedly about four strong and heroic women, Meyer has really let down the first three of her main characters and there's no reason at all to believe that she won't betray Winter in just the same way that she's already betrayed Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress. So, in conclusion, and since this is nowhere near as good as Cinder, and actually is worse than Scarlet I really have no choice but to rate this as warty. I will probably read the final volume in the desperate hope that it will recover the glory of Cinder, but since Meyer is now batting a .333, I hold out little hope for that, and I'll get that one from the library, not brand new!


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