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They are selling this as a Cinderella story, which economically makes sense because girls read more; but once you crack this book open you notice that Meyer owes more to Phillip K. Dick than Charles Perrault. This is a fairy tale with a prince, a step-mother and a pair of step-siblings. But there the similarity ends.
This is a future in which the world is crowded and small and ruled by a very few governments. Technology is advanced, even though most of the world lives in medieval squalor. However, artificially augmented humans and androids are common, if second class at best. Disease is rampant; a plague is killing off even the royal house in Cinder's home empire — a country roughly equal to all of contemporary Asia.
Humans have colonized the moon so long ago that genetic mutation has led to a new species with extra-sensory control of human minds. These colonists have found their moon too small and limited in resources. They are on the edge of invasion, looking for any excuse to take control of Earth — a feat they will easily accomplish, once started, as all will acknowledge.
Cinder is the adopted daughter of a dead scientist. She is more machine than human. She is also the best mechanic in Beijing and earns more than her keep in her step-mother's household. Her step-mother sees only machine though, considering her a useful possession — useful only until she suspects Cinder of carrying the plague into their home.
Cinder's younger sister, Peony, is infected. She will die like so many others do, soon and with much suffering. Cinder has days to find a cure even though the best of science has not offered one up yet. And it's not for lack of trying. The Emperor is dying, too.
There are so many plot twists in this book it feels like it should be printed on a Möbius Strip. Yet it doesn't feel contrived. Of course, the prince will fall in love with Cinder. She's adorable! Of course, the salvation of the world falls on Cinder's shoulders. She's amazing! Of course, everyone has a secret motive for Cinder to puzzle out before she decides where to place her trust. Doesn't everybody!
I'm a sucker for witty banter among pseudo-humans, so I might be a teensy bit biased. But I think this book is the best in the dystopian pantheon. Because it IS so human, even though populated by "not-quites". Violence and war and disease still have the power to horrify in this world. And androids possess emotions. This is a powerful examination of what it means to be human.
And she does eventually get to the ball.