Fairest, a prequel to Cinder, will have to tide us over until Winter, the last of the Lunar Chronicles, comes out in fall 2015. Fairest tells the story of Levana, the awful Lunar queen we first meet in Cinder, and her rise to power. Like all really good villains, hers is a complicated story and it’s impossible not to feel some sympathy for her. However, I also appreciate that she’s still quite the villain, and her behavior is in no way excused.
Pulling from the themes of “Snow White,” Levana is the evil stepmother, willing to do anything to hang onto the things that matter to her most. And she really will do anything—this book is definitely for the more mature end of the scale of fans of the Lunar Chronicles. There are dark family dynamics, psychological manipulation, premarital sex, attempted murder of a child, and other mature themes.
Compared to the other novels, it’s pretty short. However, it fills in some holes and adds depth to the character of Levana. It’s definitely not a standalone—it should at least be read after Cinder, and preferably after Scarlet and/or Cress as well, so the reader knows how Levana ties into the overall plot.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Violence, Cruelty, and Death
The book opens with a vivid dream/flashback to when Levana was badly burned. Then she wakes up and gets ready to attend the funeral of her parents who were gorily assassinated in their bedroom. And this is just in the first few pages.
Channary, Levana’s older sister, was cruel to Levana on every level, including forcibly burning her arm and face at the age of 6, and then teasing her for being ugly and disfigured. Levana in turn sets a deadly fire that kills a nanny and seems to kill three year old Selene. Channary jokes about cutting off her seamstress’s feet so that the woman will have nothing else to do but make dresses, but then she actually does it. Levana manipulates another man into assassinating someone and then in turn murders him for doing it.
There’s a good bit of death, even of major characters, although most of it is expected since we know a bit of Levana’s story already.
Channary sleeps around a lot. She has no idea who Selene’s father is, but to some extent, that’s the point. Selene is her daughter, and that’s all that matters. When she later dies of a lung sickness, Levana suspects she contracted it from the caves where she would illicitly meet with lovers. So yes, the promiscuous girl comes to a bad end. Although she also gives birth to the hero of the series.
Levana is 16 when the book opens, and believes herself to be very much in love with Evret, a married guard. There is a physical aspect to this—she’s filled with both physical and emotional longing for him. Once he’s widowed, she convinces him to have sex with her—it’s not an explicit scene, but nor is there any doubt of what happened. Once they’re married, the attempts to conceive an heir are part of the story, although again nothing is explicit. Channary doesn’t care that Levana is sleeping with a guard—a woman should have three men on her hook at any time—but is angry that Levana wants to marry him.
Lunars can control minds, and the royal family is quite good at it. It’s frequently used to get their way at the cost of other people. Seen from Levana’s point of view, it’s just one of the tools at her disposal. But the reader will certainly see the ethical issues that come with it.
Levana seduces Evret with her mind control and other emotional manipulation, like using her glamour to look like his dead wife. Evret is particularly susceptible, because the royal guards are chosen partially for their easily manipulated minds as an added protection for the royal family. When he agrees to marry her, she doesn’t use her mind control, but years later he points out that he still didn’t truly have the choice of saying no. He does not, has not, and can never trust her, and that’s why he could never find out if he could come to love her.
Evret loved his first wife, Solstice, and he loves their daughter, Winter. It seems possible that Channary loved Selene, or at least made an attempt at being a good mother to her. But every other relationship is twisted. Levana thinks she’s in love, but she has no idea what that is. The sister relationship is awful. Their parents were at best neglectful. Levana feels nothing for Selene or Winter, even as she acts like mother to them.
Like the stepmother in “Snow White,” Levana is very conscious of beauty. She uses illusion to create her own beauty, as her actual body is burned and disfigured. Then again, most people in her society use glamours to make themselves more beautiful. It’s a whole culture built very much on the falseness of appearance. Evret makes it clear, though, that it was never her beauty or lack of it that had an impact on him. Mirrors don’t reflect glamours, so eventually Levana has them all removed—in other novels it’s believed that all Lunars have an issue with mirrors, but it’s pretty unique to Levana.
Levana is jealous of women with natural beauty—at the least, they don’t have to work so hard to fix their looks with glamours.
Worth of Life
Levana doesn’t hesitate to kill or destroy anyone who stands in her way. Mostly this is nameless people—she unleashes a horrible disease on the earth, she sacrifices the shells (ungifted Lunars) of her kingdom to create the antidote, workers are killed or punished to make a point, she sacrifices young men to become beastly warriors. She does all of this casually, not out of malice. It’s a means to an end. In many cases, she’s continuing things that her father set in motion, so it’s just the way she was raised. Since the book is from her point of view, it’s up to the reader to be horrified by her cavalier attitude.
Levana wants to be the fairest queen that Luna has ever known. There are two meanings here—the obvious one is looks, but she also really wants to be a good leader. It’s something that interests her, and she wants to be a better ruler than her parents or her sister could ever have been. She cares about politics. She thinks about solutions. But her quest for power also poisons her as much as her quest for beauty does.
This is a totally engaging read for any fan of the Lunar Chronicles. It packs a lot of darkness into just over 200 pages, though. There is no one to root for in this book, but it works well as character development that would be impossible to incorporate into the core novels. Although it’s a prequel, it’s not a good starting point for the series and should probably be read after Scarlet or Cress. It’s suitable for any reader who didn’t find Scarlet or Cress too dark.