Cress, like Rapunzel, has been imprisoned in an orbiting satellite for more than seven years. Lunar Queen Levana is trying to capture and kill Cinder, the true heir to the Lunar throne. Cress, a whip at technology, is supposed to be tracking Cinder who escaped in Carswell Thorne's ship, Rampion - which happens to be another name for the rapunzel plant. Cloaking ships, spying on nations, or hacking into any piece of software is Cress's specialty. Her handler, Mistress Sybil Mira, brings her food and water by podship every 3 weeks or so. When Cinder escaped New Beijing with Carswell Thorne in the previous book, it was Cress who betrayed Queen Levana by masking their ship from detection by jamming satellite signals. This story starts with Cinder and her crew rescuing Cress. Cinder's plan explodes when complications arise scattering the team throughout the solar system.
Queen Levana rules a colony on the moon that has a military more advanced than Earth and citizens who can control the minds of human beings and change their appearances to look like anything they want. Not everyone has this Lunar gift of mind control and some are better at it than others. Those who don't have the gift, like Cress, are supposedly killed by the government. Lunar is at war with Earth and Emperor Kai has agreed to marry Queen Levana to stop the bloodshed, as well as, get an antidote for the Plague that is killing thousands of humans. Cinder is trying to stop Kai's marriage because she loves him and knows Queen Levana will kill him after the marriage. Queen Levana's goal is to rule Lunar and Earth. As Cinder and her team try to stop the Lunar queen, they discover some unsettling items regarding the history of the Plague, its use in politics, and the link between it and ungifted Lunars.
In the fairy tale, Rapunzel betrays the sorceress that put her in the tower just like Cress betrays Mistress Sybil Mira by helping Cinder. Meyer chooses to make the character of Mira more monstrous than human. Some portrayals of Rapunzel in the fairy tale show the sorceress as a mother figure who has tried to keep Rapunzel safe from the world and is disappointed when she learns of her betrayal. Other versions show a rivalry between the prince and the sorceress for Rapunzel's affections. "Cress" has Mira as a one-dimensional villain. I would have liked to have seen some internal struggle when she decides to kill Cress, but she's the evil witch through and through. The theme of entrapment runs throughout the characters and plot. Cress and Kai are trapped by the Queen. Cinder is trapped as a cyborg that is not considered human. Wolf is trapped as a soldier with predatory instincts that affect his reasoning, Dr. Erland is trapped from his daughter, people from Earth are trapped by an epidemic and impending Lunar war. Winter is trapped by not using her Lunar gift and on and on the list goes.
Cinder and Scarlet along with their male friends are included in this story with the introduction of Cress and Carswell Thorne as her "prince." After living in a satellite through most of her childhood and teen years, Cress is completely overwhelmed when she crash lands into civilization again. The timid girl who slips into her imaginary world of fairy tales when frightened has problems assimilating with people. She finds the strength to face her fears and grows and matures as an individual overcoming each challenge and threat that is thrown her way. Her childlike love and adulation for Thorne adds humor at first, only to mature and change into a reliable friendship that suggests by the end it might develop into a romance. Cinder's story arc drives the series and I was happy to see her character often in the plot as she fights Queen Levana and learns to deal with her newfound powers of mind control. She is torn between the ethical and social use, or abuse, of those powers and how to deal with them as a good person that wants to do the right thing.
Marissa Meyer uses the conventional fairy tale as a framework for her plot, but has rearranged familiar motifs to provoke readers into rethinking views of fairy tales that empower females and depart from male-dominant roles. While fairy tales focus on physical beauty, Meyer - for the most part - avoids the pitfalls of stereotypes. Cinder is my favorite character because she departs the most from being "the beautiful princess" and is not physically weak. Cress is similar. Unlike the gorgeous-haired Rapunzel, Cress has tresses that are a rope-like tangled mess that is so heavy it gives her a headache. She has it wrapped around her arms to lighten the load and when things get dicey for her, it gets in the way of escape. When Thorne chops it off it is a relief and freedom, not a symbol of losing something beautiful physically. Some might find her fantasizing about Thorne rescuing her or wearing beautiful clothes to a ball too princessy, but it fits with the character of a person trapped for seven years in ratty clothes and hair experiencing the world like a newborn.
Much of the plot has the main symbols found in Rapunzel such as the tower, long hair, singing, blindness, sorceress, and prince that rescues the princess. When Cress meets Carswell Thorne, she idolizes him as a hero. While Thorne knows his motivations have been less than noble, he likes her hero-worship. When he tells her the truth, she makes him look more honestly at himself. She grows from dependence on Mira to working on an adult relationship with Thorne. They become friends that can count on each other. This story is not strictly the prince rescuing the princess; Thorne rescues Cress, but she also saves his life and must be his "eyes" when he is struck blind. Meyer struck the right balance for me with her character, Cress, because others must rely on her intelligence or superior computer skills and physically for her eyesight. She's a pipsqueak of a person and not like cyberborg Cinder, yet she shows that she is strong in other ways adapting to stressful situations and taking in the world for the first time. It would have been easy to make her a ding-a-ling, but her sincerity, tenacity, and naivety work as a person who has been abused by adults and sheltered from the world.
In one widely known version of the Rapunzel fairy tale the mother is pregnant and craves a neighbor's rapunzel plant to the point of death. The husband steals it and is caught by the neighbor who is a witch. She says he can take the plant but must give her his child when she is born. He agrees. The witch raises the child and locks her away in a tower because she is the most beautiful creature in the world. This can be interpreted as safeguarding the young or obsessive behavior or not letting a child grow up. The reader can apply it to his or her own circumstances. In this regard, fairy tales offer moral and social critiques regarding life in a way that readers can approach reality. For instance, Rapunzel can be interpreted as a story about growing up. The tower can be seen as a family unit with a child dependent on adults before leaving home to form his or her own independent relationships. Cress's story echoes Rapunzel's, but is unique in itself. For instance, Cress's story has her family giving her up as a Lunar child because she doesn't haven't magical abilities. Readers can apply this to their own situations. Perhaps they have parents disappointed in the fact they are not brilliant at academics or sports or music. In real life, people have to deal with others who are in positions of authority and power who can be abusive or wise or mediocre. Children are under the authority of adults and like Rapunzel or Cress they might feel trapped by their lack of power in many situations making them long to be free. The beauty of fantasy and fairy tales is they can serve as a psychological and social medium for readers to look at real-life issues and deal with them. When the characters live happily-ever-after, it gives hope to readers that they too can transform themselves or their world for the better.