***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-Sentence Summary: This series is turning into a total delight, and Marissa Meyer is a charming storyteller.
I just finished reviewing Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and if you force me to say it I will: yes, of course, Cress (and its siblings, Cinder and Scarlet) are not Nobel-Prize-winning literary fiction, but the Lunar Chronicles series is joyful storytelling on the part of Meyer and a heck of a lot of fun for the reader. It is lyrically written? No, but it's steady and pleasant and polished. Will you begin to feel like the characters are your friends, and look forward to seeing them? Yes! Did this book reliably cheer me up every day during a particularly frustrating week? Absolutely, and I was grateful for it.
This installment is the "Rapunzel" of Meyer's fairy tale retellings. But as I mentioned in my review of Scarlet, the fairy tale origins of each book are just a springboard, and the overarching story is all Meyer's. By the end, we will have four dynamic couples battling one evil lunar queen. Cinder introduced us to Linh Cinder and Kai, who has become the emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth; Scarlet introduced us to Scarlet Benoit and Wolf; in Cress we linger on Crescent Moon and Carswell Thorne; and in Winter we're sure to meet Princess Winter (Snow White) again, and watch her love for Jacin, the former Lunar guard, blossom, while the eight of them (plus Iko, and maybe Little Cress) save the world.
A plot recap, mostly so that I'll remember what's going on when I read Winter. Cress has spent nearly a decade on a satellite, because of her computer skills, feeding secret strategic information to thaumaturge Sybil (Queen Levana's lackey) and "cloaking" a fleet of two or three hundred lunar ships that is stationed just over Earth. But she's not fond of her job, and she's a lonely prisoner, both of which cause her to spend ilicit time following Cinder's criminal progress on Earth, and secretly camouflaging her ship, the Rampion, from the Queen's radar. Her loneliness causes her to cyberstalk heartthrob Carswell Thorne, and build up the fantasy that he'll rescue her and they're fated to fall in love.
Cinder, Scarlet, Wolf, and Thorne do in fact try to rescue Cress (after they discover that she's the one who fed Cinder the information that Queen Levana had bad motives for wanting to marry Kai), and Cress and Thorne survive the re-entry of the satellite from orbit, crashing in the Sahara desert, where they rely on each other to survive. Thorne has lost his vision from a bump on the noggin, which is questionably medically accurate but a really swell metaphor about his blindness to Cress's love and goodness. When Cress is abducted by desert bandits who know Dr. Erland will pay good money for Lunar shells (Lunar people who have no magical ability), Thorne feels compelled, he's not sure why, to try to rescue her a second time. Maybe he kind of likes the kid. Meanwhile, Kai is preparing endlessly for his wedding, and wringing his hands with Konn Torin about whether he has made the right decision, and troubled by his fascination with Cinder and desire to protect her from All the Queen's Men. Sybil and her pilot, Jacin Clay, have a shootout with the crew of the Rampion, and Scarlet is taken as a prisoner to pilot Sybil's pod away, while Jacin--relieved of Sybil's mind control--reveals that his real loyalty is to "his princess." He's not thinking of Cinder, mind you, since it takes a loooong time for Cinder to reveal to anyone that she's Selene. He's thinking of Princess Winter. Wolf is despondent at the loss of Scarlet, his alpha female and, knowing the torture that can be inflicted on humans, almost wishes her dead rather than captured. He rallies himself for the next step: Cinder and the gang, determined to stop the wedding, break into the palace via tunnels and kidnap Kai. (The distraction is created by Thorne and Erland, who go to the medical wing to fix Thorne's eyesight--with scientifically questionable drops fashioned from stem cells.) Erland discovers that he has contracted Letumosis and quarantines himself, saying goodbye to Cress, whom he reveals is his daughter, and telling Cinder his most recent discovery: that Letumosis was engineered, probably by Levana's parents, using the DNA of "shells," in order to make Earth dependent on Luna for the antidote. As for Scarlet, we see her on Luna, the "pet" of a vicious boy who torments her by controlling her brain to make her think that spiders and snakes are crawling out of her skin until she rips her own flesh open. At her interrogation, Winter persuades her stepmother, Levana, to give Scarlet to her as a pet, but only after Levana makes Scarlet hatchet off her own pinky. At the end of the book, Cinder and Kai have kissed again and are allies, but war has broken out on Earth because the marriage alliance is broken.
Complaints I've read. Most readers adore this book, but the few complaints I've read beg a discussion. The first is that Cress is too passive, and that she and Thorne don't have anything in common--or even that he's experienced and she's younger and sheltered, and there's something squicky about that. Most readers with this criticism will allow that Cress is wimpy because she has been alone for so many years. I think Meyer did a good job of making Cress as worldly as possible in a "bookish" way (really, Internet way), but less of a good job at making her emotionally stunted by her isolation. My complaint is subtler than the other readers: I think there would be true psychological damage from her confinement that would manifest itself in more serious ways, and in particular because Cress was so young when she was locked away. Meyer tries to get at it by making Cress retreat into fantasy worlds when she's under stress, but Cress is, all in all, still pretty functional--which is a hopeful spin on Meyer's part, but maybe not accurate. As it stands, Cress's fantasies are crutches, not debilitating, which they might be in the real world. But hey, this is fiction, and I'll repeat my mantra for this series: Marissa Meyer dearly wants to entertain you, and you should let her.
As for whether Cress "deserves" Thorne, and the notion that he's wrong for her and they should just be platonic friends, come on, people! The whole premise of this series is sweet romance, and that by the end we'll have four heterosexual, cis-gendered couples who are in love with each other and willing to fight for all of humanity. Just go with it, please. Also, Thorne is taking it nice and slow, sexually--as EVERY couple in this series is--so there's no need to get squicked out.
Another complaint is that Scarlet and Wolf don't get enough screen time, and that Wolf mopes around after Scarlet's abduction. Another "come on, people" is in order. First of all, Meyer clearly wants to say (whether it's accurate or not) that Wolf is behaving like...well, like a real wolf when it comes to bonding with his mate. He withdraws, like an animal. And second of all, as an abused Lunar, he understands what will happen to Scarlet in Sybil's custody (like, I dunno, being forced to chop off your own finger) and he's understandably distracted by that. As far as their prominence as a couple in the book goes, well, this installment is called Cress. The most hilarious criticism I've read is "Why can't Meyer spend more writing time on the characters we've grown to love and care about?" Hmm, if I'm not mistaken, Scarlet and Wolf were new characters just a book ago. Also, the cumulative nature of this series--introducing new people but stirring them all into the same plot--necessarily means that everyone has to share the story as it progresses. Cress is not a lightweight in terms of page count as it is, at 550 pages.
And finally, some people have mentioned that Kai spends all his time wringing his hands over his wedding, and over saving earth, and over whether he's making the right decision, but not actually doing much. I like to believe that this is a deliberate choice on Meyer's part--that, in a fairy tale sense, Kai was the princess in the tower for a while, waiting to be rescued by Cinder, the courageous knight in shining armor. Nice twist, Meyer!
The trap I hope Meyer won't fall into: making Queen Levana one-dimensionally evil. I hope that the final installment will add depth to her character, and give us a peek at the universe through her eyes.
A few things I inexplicably adored: Little Cress, programmed with Cress's childish voice; Thorne arrogantly playing Poker for money, while blind; Iko's sexy escort droid body; the way Meyer isn't afraid to have Cress's crush come true--a brave choice in this YA world of "kickass heroines"*; the way Thorne is metaphorically blind to Cress's love and goodness, and also literally blind; and yes, the way Emperor Kai is actually the damsel in distress in this series, turning fairy tale tropes on their heads.
*As proof of how de rigueur feminist, independent females have become in YA literature, here is what someone said in a goodreads review: "If I were a parent and my daughter were reading this series, I'm not sure how I would feel about the heroine being a brilliant yet timid woman who falls head over heels in love with a man after cyberstalking him - especially when said man was such a stereotypical bad boy in so many ways." --International Cat Lady