Scarlet is Book Two of the Lunar Chronicles Series. This series, while not strictly a romance series, is a high-quality romance-friendly crossover, and its inventive steampunk/science fiction twists on fairy tales make it a must-read for genre fans.
The Lunar Chronicles series takes place in the far future, after World War IV. These books combine elements from the genres of steampunk, science fiction, dystoptian fiction, young adult, romance, and fairy tales. Cyborgs are common but discriminated against. A plague, called leutomisis, is threatening humans and cyborgs. There is no cure or treatment, and its method of transmission is unknown. Furthermore, humans are threatened by war from Lunars, people who live on a colony of the moon and who have developed mind control powers.
Scarlet is the second of four books in the Lunar Chronicles Series, and the books tie together so closely that this is essentially a joint review of the first book, Cinder ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ), and the second, Scarlet. This is definitely a series that must be read in order.
Cinder is essentially a retelling of Cinderella. It is about a cyborg teenaged girl with a mechanical foot who is raised by a bitter vengeful stepmother and who falls in love with Prince Kai when Prince Kai comes to her shop to ask her to repair his android.
Scarlet has done a good job of maintaining the momentum of Cinder's story while introducing Scarlet and Wolf (with the fairy tale references being to Red Riding Hood). Here's the plot synopsis as handily provided by the sleeve of the book:
Cinder, the cyborg mechanic…is trying to break out of prison, even though if she succeeds, she'll be the Commonwealth's most wanted fugitive.
Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit's grandmother is missing. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information about her grandmother's whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband and her prisoner.
This is a series of books with strong romantic elements, not a series of romance novels. Cinder's novel ended on a total cliffhanger with her relationship with Kai completely unresolved. Scarlet ends with her romance being somewhat resolved but all other threads literally up in the air (the main characters are on a spaceship).
Nowhere do I have that feeling that romance novels promise me: “Everything will end up OK”. I think some couples will end up OK, but I'm not sure they all will. On the other hand, this is a series with a definite ending. A total of four books are planned (the next two reference Rapunzel and Snow White), so it's not as though the author is going to have to string along relationships for ten or more books until she gets tired of writing the series and never wraps it up. Maybe at the end of the last Lunar Chronicles book I'll have to do a mini, spoiler-iffic review and just let you guys know if everyone ends up all right.
Those strong romantic elements are as hot as possible without anyone actually knowing each other very well or having sex (yet). I credit that to the two male protagonists, neither of whom are too stupid, or sexist, to live. Kai may be very confused about Cinder right now, but he trusts her as much as he possibly can without being a certified idiot. Still, he is a responsible leader. He realizes that the fate of his planet is more important than his personal love life, and he won't protect Cinder to such a degree that he betrays his people. Maybe that makes him sound like an ass, but he's not. I like him much better knowing what he's willing to give up and why than I would if he just decided to let the fate of the planet be someone else's problem in the hope that love will conquer all.
I also liked the gender switch in terms of plot. Usually the person who is going to be coerced into marriage to save the kingdom is the female, with the male taking the role of running amok to fix things. Here, Cinder is the more active protagonist, while Kai is the one who has to marry against his will. In contrast to Kai, Wolf gives up everything – his people, his pack, his family – to be with Scarlet, and that makes him pretty darn sexy too (his position is very different from Kai's, which is why I find it hot that Kai won't throw everyone over for his crush but I also find it hot that Wolf will). Both of these couples have only had time to experience the beginnings of love, but their reactions to it are interesting and different and sweet.
Both books are primarily told from the points of view of the female protagonists. Cinder and Scarlet are both admirable and interesting. I appreciated that they have different skills. I've read about so many female steampunk inventors that seeing a mechanic and a farmer who also knows how to pilot a ship was refreshing. I also appreciated that they come from different parts of the world – Cinder is Chinese and Scarlet is French. In a lot of science fiction, the world is depicted as mono-cultural, and I liked seeing a global view. Cinder and Scarlet are both sympathetic (especially Cinder, who, let's face it, has an awful lot going on, while Scarlet has one goal – save grandma). I'm looking forward to seeing Scarlet and Cinder interact more in the next books, and I'm looking forward to see how Scarlet reacts to having more complex goals than she did in “her” book. Her obsession with saving her grandmother occasionally caused her to act like an idiot. She lacks strategy, but she has tons of courage and loyalty, so I'm hoping she can really kick some Lunar ass soon.
The main draw of the books is the world building and the way the steampunk science fiction setting allows old fairy tales to play out in new way. The plot synopsis may make it sound silly, but it really isn't. It's played for drama, not dime store pulp fun. It also has a lot of genre elements, but instead of doing what many authors do, namely, throw everything at the pages and hope it makes the book seem cool, the elements fit together in an organic, natural way. I actually hadn't realized how many crazy things are in these books until I started writing the review. That's a compliment. Most steampunks I read say, “Look! We have SPACESHIPS! And, and, we have…CYBORGS! No wait, don't put this book down, we have…AN INVASION FROM THE MOON!” But this series uses the elements with a nice, natural touch.
The downside of the series so far is that its tone is so relentlessly dramatic. I'm not saying that I require everything I read to be a laugh riot. I'm fine with having some books be serious, even dark, in nature. But even in the most serious, dramatic works, there's usually some fluctuations in tone to keep things varied and interesting – some comic relief, some quiet character moments, some layering. Cinder and Scarlet are both books that, for the most part, involve non-stop drama, occasionally veering into melodrama. I appreciate the relentless pace to a degree but I could use a little more humor and a little less teen angst.
Teen angst aside, I think fans of any of the genres at play here will like the series, and I think romance readers will as well, as long as you are forewarned that this is cross-over, not pure romance.