Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl.
Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg. She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.
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Cinder is a cyborg living in New Beijing after World War 4, with her step-mother, Adri, and her two step sisters, Pearl and Peony. Cinder owns a booth in the market place, where she works as a mechanic with the family's android, Iko. While she is working, she meets Prince Kai, who asks her to fix his android, Nainsi. After Kai leaves, the market is evacuated because a baker, Chang Sacha, has been infected. Prince Kai's father, Emperor Rikan, is currently sick with letumosis, otherwise known as the Blue Fever, a plague that is terrorizing the Commonwealth. There have been no plague survivors.
While in the junkyard, Cinder, Iko, and Peony, who are looking for a new mag belt for Adri's hover car, discover an old fashioned, gas powered car, which Cinder plans to take home and repair. At the same time, Peony contracts the plague, and is taken away.
When Cinder returns home, Adri is grieving and infuriated, blaming Cinder for her daughter's sickness, thinking that, even though Cinder doesn't have the plague, she must have passed it from Chang Sacha to Peony. She has Cinder taken to the palace against her will, so that Cinder will be used for letumosis research. Cinder puts up a fight, taking out two med-droids, but is tasered by a third droid, and is taken in unconscious.
Dr. Erland, a researcher in the palace, draws her blood, and when Cinder awakes, opens up her control panel and scans her, revealing that she is 36.28% not human. The doctor injects her with tagged letumosis pathogens, and waits for them to take effect so he can give her an antidote. But after several minutes, Cinder's immune system kicks in, and the pathogens disappear. After drawing another blood sample, the doctor moves her to another lab, and comes to talk to her in person, instead of over an intercom like before. Cinder tries to attack him with a wrench hidden in her metal calf, but the doctor makes her feel tired and safe, and persuades her not to attack him. Erland tells her that she is actually immune to the plague, and questions her about her childhood. Cinder tells him the truth - that she was told she was in a hover car crash that killed her parents when she was eleven, and was given a control panel, a metal hand, and a metal foot to replace her real limbs that she lost, and that she does not remember anything before her surgery. Cinder was taken to the Eastern Commonwealth, and Linh Garan, who soon died of the plague, became her guardian.
Kai, discouraged at his father's condition, walks down to Dr. Erland's lab, but runs into a woman named Sybil Mira in the elevator. Sybil is the head thaumaturge to Queen Levana, who rules over a colony on the moon, and is on Earth to discuss an alliance between Luna and the Commonwealth. Kai discusses Princess Selene, Queen Levana's niece and the only heir to the Lunar Crown with Konn Torin after she leaves. Selene died in a fire when she was three, but there are many theories speculating that she is in hiding on Earth, even though they found particles of her flesh in the ashes. Kai wants to find Selene and put her on the throne instead of Levana, but Torin tells him that Selene is dead, and to put the theories out of his mind.
The doctor asks to do a small experiment on Cinder, and she agrees. Dr. Erland pinches the vertebrae above her shoulders, knocking her unconscious.
Cinder wakes up to see Dr. Erland and Prince Kai over her. She is fine, and Kai helps her stand, asking what had happened to her. Dr. Erland lies, and tells Kai that he was just adjusting her spine, and that the reason she is at the palace is that she is repairing a med-droid. Cinder exits the palace, promising to comm Kai when she had fixed Nainsi, and that she'd be back tomorrow to help Dr. Erland. She walks back to Adri's apartment, argues with Adri, and reunites with Iko. Cinder makes a plan to use the car she and Peony found to leave New Beijing. During the night, Emperor Rikan dies. Minutes after his death, Kai receives a comm from Queen Levana who tells him that she herself will be coming down to the Commonwealth to discuss an alliance with him, but finishes the message before Kai can protest.
That morning, Cinder is awoken with a comm that informs her that Peony has entered the third stage of letumosis. Cinder goes to visit her in the letumosis quarantine to visit Peony, giving her a blanket and promising to find an antidote. On her way out of the quarantine, she encounters Chang Sacha, who makes her promise to bring her son, Sunto, then dies. A med-droid wheeled up to Sacha's bed took out a scalpel, and cut into Sacha's wrist. Cinder asks the med-droid what it's doing. It answers that it is taking out Sacha's ID chip.
At the palace, Cinder meets Kai in the halls and walks with him down to the lab. Kai tells her that the Lunar Queen is coming to Earth and that she should watch out, and asks her to the annual ball. Shocked, Cinder declines. When Kai is gone, Cinder asks Dr. Erland about the med-droid who cut out Chang Sacha's ID chip. Dr. Erland tells her about the practice of extracting ID chips from dead patients. He also tells Cinder about Lunars who cannot be affected by the lunar's control over bioelectricity, called shells, who immigrated to earth to protect themselves. Queen Levana kills them because they are immune to her illusions of beauty. She then tells Dr. Erland about the Queens arrival. Dr. Erland looks horrified and makes Cinder promise that she won't return to the palace as long as the Queen is on Earth. That is when he tells her that she is a Lunar shell herself. Cinder promises, and goes back to the mechanic shop, and starts fixing Nainsi. Iko finds a shiny D-COMM (direct communication chip) camouflaged in the android's wiring, and when she pulls it out, the android restarts and begins speaking about leads for finding Princess Selene. Cinder knows the importance of this, so she takes Nainsi to the palace, even though she knows the Queen would kill her if she found her. At the palace, there is a protest against the Queen, and as soon as Cinder delivers Nainsi, Queen Levana comes to the balcony and brainwashes the protesters. Cinder does become brainwashed for a minute, and when she tries to run away, she bumps into a man, who makes a sound, and makes the Queen look in her direction, furious.
When Levana goes in the palace, she tells the prince that she saw a Lunar fugitive and wants her found otherwise there will be war. Then she gives him an antidote that is enough for one male, and leaves. The prince gives the antidote to Dr.Erland so he could duplicate it. The prince goes to see Cinder, so he can thank her. Cinder tells the prince about Nainsi and how it started speaking about the search for Princess Selene.
When Cinder goes to the labs, Dr. Erland becomes angry that she came back to the palace. Cinder tells him that there is no point hiding because the Queen already saw her. Dr. Erland calms down, and gives Cinder a part of the antidote for Peony, who has entered the 4th (and last) stage of the plague. When Cinder reaches the hospital, she is about to give Peony the antidote, but she dies, so Cinder gives it to Chang Sacha's son instead. She took down 2 androids that tried to capture her because she wouldn't let them take the chip from the dead Peony, and she takes it instead. When she is on the run, androids that Adri has sent capture her and send her to the apartment. Adri tells Cinder that she can't go to the ball, but Cinder doesn't care, because, 1, Adri lied before about letting her go, and 2, she is running away with the car on the night but Adri also takes Cinder's robotic foot and destroys Iko. When Cinder is left alone, and everyone is at the ball, Cinder is about to pack her things when she hears someone on Peony's netscreen. It was a girl on the Lunar planet, and she confesses of putting the D-COMM on Nainsi, and Levana now knows about the search for the Princess and is angry. When the Prince marries her, she plans kill him and rule over Earth. Cinder has to go to the ball, so she finds Peony's dress, her 11 old cyborg foot, and goes to the ball. It is pouring, but she makes it to the ball drenched. She then proceeds to hide because she sees Levana, and when Levana leaves to go to her room, she is about to go to the Prince when she sees Pearl. Pearl knew about the encounter with the prince, and the special relationship between them, and she says she will tell Kai that she is a cyborg. A servant asks her for her ID, and it turns out that the prince put her on the personal list and was really expecting her. She is announced. and when she is about to reach the prince, she is met by Adri, who is about to slap her, but Kai stops her, and dances with Cinder. She tells him everything, and then Levana comes. She uses her brainwashing powers to try to make Cinder shoot herself, but because she is a cyborg, she wasn't able to. Then, she tries to escape from the Levana, and falls down a flight of stairs, snapping off her replaced foot and revealing to the attendees at the ball (and Kai) that she was cyborg. In order to keep the peace between Luna and Earth, Kai offers Cinder to Levana, and imprisons her. Dr. Erland comes and tells her that she is Princess Selene, and tells her to run away because the Queen will try everything to kill her. The novel closes as Cinder ponders this idea, as well as her Lunar abilities. She considers that she must run away, and the last line is, "They would be looking for a ghost." A deformed cyborg with a missing foot, a lunar with a stolen identity, a mechanic with no one to run to, nowhere to go, but they would be looking for a mythical ghost.