I had heard the buzz surrounding Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and my curiosity was piqued. Sitting down to read, I hoped that it hadn’t been over-hyped, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself reading a fast-paced, intriguing fantasy novel with a wonderfully real and sympathetic female protagonist — which is rarer than you might think.
The world in which Katsa lives has amidst its population people known as Gracelings: individuals with extraordinary, but rather arbitrary talents. Identified by their mismatched eyes, their gifts can range from mind reading to super-sensory hearing to simply being a strong swimmer. The Gracelings are feared by their neighbors and exploited by their kings, and Katsa is no exception, particularly since her own Grace is the skill of killing.
She lives under the command of her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns, working as his trained assassin and hit-woman, dealing out threats and injuries to anyone who displeases him. She despises his rule and undermines it in the only way she knows how: by forming an underground resistance in the hopes of secretly combating the destructive behavior of the seven kings.
It is during a rescue mission in a neighboring kingdom that she meets a fellow Graceling — a young man who proves himself a match to her combat skills. When she gets a proper introduction she discovers he’s Prince Greening of Lienid (though he prefers the nickname “Po”), and the grandson of the man who she was sent to rescue — though why his grandfather was being held hostage in the first place is a mystery still to be solved.
Learning to accept the friendship of this strange young man and to free herself from the control of her uncle is what leads Katsa on a mission out into the world to find an answer to the strange behavior of King Leck of Monsea. Believing him to be connected to his grandfather’s kidnapping, Po suspects that the man may be a Graceling, in possession of a terrifying Grace that allows him to perform heinous acts without endangering his benevolent reputation. But how do you combat such a Grace? As Katsa and Po near his kingdom they realize the extent of Leck’s power and find themselves protecting his only daughter as the winter sets in, learning at the same time that there’s more to both their Graces than they’ve been lead to believe.
All the threads come together in a satisfying whole: the mystery becomes an adventure which becomes a survival story as the book goes on, with Katsa and Po’s growing romance woven throughout. But Graceling is essentially the story of one young woman’s struggle to assert herself in a world in which she’s treated as an outsider. It is unashamedly feminist, but not in the obnoxious “women are good, men are bad” kind of way; rather Katsa’s journey leads her to connect and form friendships with various men in her life, and come to terms with her fears of love, marriage and commitment before finding her own definition of those terms. It’s a breath of fresh air in the young adult genre, which seems to be increasingly full of passive, insipid heroines who are content to sit back and wait for their love interest to save them. Here, Katsa and Po are equals — not physically (there it’s Katsa who has the advantage), but in characterization. What Katsa lacks, Po provides and visa-versa. It’s probably one of the healthiest and most realistic relationships portrayed in a young adult novel since Ella Enchanted, in which love is based on common interests, mutual respect, and friendship.
It’s not perfect, however. The world-building is a little clumsy and certain names, such as Princess Bitterblue or Po, grate (the latter is a nickname for an even weirder name, but which inevitably brings to mind the red Teletubby and Kung Fu Panda). The names of the countries are simply variations of north, south, east and west, and cities are named for their rulers, which would surely play havoc with mapmakers — you’d have to update them every time a new power took the throne. The biggest problem is how quickly and relatively easily Leck is dispatched, for after building him up as a frightening villain with an equally dangerous Grace, the final confrontation is disappointingly anti-climactic.
But the characters are wonderfully three-dimensional and vivid, and the concept of the Gracelings and the way in which they operate in the world is the book’s most intriguing feature. Out of interest I have read some negative reviews; though I admit this book isn’t perfect, I couldn’t disagree more that Katsa is a Mary Sue or that Po is an Edward Cullen knock-off. Regardless of what her “superpowers” allow her to do, Katsa has plenty of very real pain, fear and a lack of self-esteem to work through, and her growth throughout the novel into a woman who is in command of her own destiny (particularly when she grasps the true nature of her Grace) is immensely rewarding. Po is never patronizing or over-protective toward Katsa. Rather, he treats her with respect, trust and understanding whilst struggling with the limitations of his own Grace and how it affects his relationships with other people.
At times you can tell that Graceling is Cashore’s first novel, particularly in regards to the sometimes stilted style and prose, but as a first novel it bodes very well for any future books from this author.
Kristin Cashore’s Graceling is a wonderfully surefooted novel that pleases from start to finish. It is set in the land of the Seven Kingdoms, where some (Gracelings) are born with a particular talent ranging in scope and usefulness: mind-reading, fighting, cooking, climbing trees, etc. The main character, Lady Katsa, has a fighter/killer Grace which she usually employs (rarely happily) in the service of her uncle, King Randa as his “muscle.” The story opens with a bang (actually some flying kicks, savage punches, useless swordplay, and so on) as Katsa uses her Grace for her own purpose, performing a daring rescue of an old man kept prisoner by another king. On the mission, she meets another Graceling fighter, Prince Po (son of yet a third king).
The rest of Graceling explores several plot avenues. One is Katsa’s growing revulsion at how Randa forces her to use her Grace and her fitful attempts to control her Grace and her anger. Another is the mystery of why the prisoner was taken and who was behind it. A third is the deepening relationship between Katsa and Prince Po as they travel together. And yet another is the mystery surrounding yet another of the kings of the Seven Kingdoms.
On the surface, we’ve seen much of this before. The singular magical “talent” some are born with (LeGuin’s Powers series is another good exploration of this relatively common idea), the awkward burgeoning relationship between two young characters, the character fighting against his/her own powers, a spunky young princess. But truth is there isn’t a lot of wholly new out there; what differentiates the very good, good, middling, and bad, is what you do with the usual ingredients. Kristin Cashore, it turns out, is an excellent cook. There isn’t a misstep or bad taste anywhere here, making Graceling one of the better reads of the year.
The plot is compelling throughout with excellent pacing — not overly long, no abrupt shifts or lagging sections, lots of tense moments but not piled up one atop the other, good breaks of humor and more quiet moments, mysteries that are resolved at the right moments, twists and turns that connect logically and are well set up.
The characters are strong in their own right — sharply defined, individual, complex (Katsa more than Po but he is fully three-dimensional and gets his own special complexities toward the latter parts of the book) and as compelling as personalities as the plot is for tension and mystery. Their characters are revealed in a variety of equally skillful ways: interior monologue, well-crafted dialogue that doesn’t feel crafted, actions both subtle and large.
Side characters are also nicely sketched in efficient strokes: Katsa’s servant woman, Randa’s son Raffin, Po’s brother. The villain is a bit abstract and amorphous, but this is more due to plot requirements than poor writing and its very abstractness adds to its horror.
The relationship between Katsa and Po is also well done — handled in much more adult fashion than we usually see, skipping over the cookie-cutter “let’s instantly hate each other, bicker endless and falsely for half the book, then resent falling in love and bicker some more over that, then give in and be a couple” form so prevalent. It feels more real than 90 percent of the relationships in fantasy books.
Beyond the big picture of plot and character, there are many lovely moments throughout Graceling: wonderful moments of dialogue, of interior thought, of description (though less so) and some great set scenes. Graceling exhilarates in both the large and small. It wraps up as a fully independent story, and there are two “companion” novels (not strict sequels but set in the same world and very roughly around the same time) planned, one of which (Fire) comes out this fall. I’m looking forward to both. Very highly recommended.
It took me almost no time at all to fall in love with Kristin Cashore’s main character, Katsa, in Graceling. In this book for young adult readers, Katsa is a strong — both literally and figuratively — sharp-minded young woman who practices a well-developed sense of ethics, knows herself, and knows what she wants (and more importantly, what she doesn’t want). What a wonderful role model she is for the female teenagers who are Cashore’s target audience! How much better it would be for a 13-year-old to read about this type of young woman than about some swoony female who falls for a vampire because he glimmers in the dark!
Katsa has a “Grace” — a special innate ability, as is evidenced by her eyes, one green, one blue. Her Grace reveals itself when she is 10 years old and a cousin makes sexual advances on her: she kills him. Swiftly, efficiently, and without thought, she smashes him in the face, pushing the bones of his nose into his brain. Everyone concludes that she is Graced with an ability to kill, though it also evidences itself with an uncanny ability to fight, to anticipate the movements of her enemies, and to avoid sickness. Still, others born with different-colored eyes are graced with such things as an uncanny ability to dance, or to swim like a fish; a Grace for killing is frightening to most, and her Grace therefore tends to isolate Katsa.
The logical thing for Katsa’s king to do in response to a child Graced with killing is to banish or kill her, even if she is his niece. But King Randa of the Middluns thinks instead of the use to which he can put her as an assassin or at least an enforcer, and keeps her close. He is not an evil man, but he is certainly greedy, and Katsa learns to hate the use to which he puts her. When he sends her to hurt one of his lords who has refused to offer up a daughter to an unsuitable marriage for which King Randa would receive the dowry, she must make a decision about whether she intends to live the rest of her life as a king’s instrument of power.
But that is only the beginning of her story. Katsa soon finds herself traveling with Po, a young prince from another country, to find out the story behind his grandfather’s kidnapping. Katsa tries her best not to fall in love with Po, because she has sworn never to marry or bear children. She falls nonetheless, but still manages to remain true to her decisions about how to lead her life, and how to make her life one with room for fully realized love.
This is what most impressed me about Katsa. Imagine: a woman who wants to remain wholly herself, for herself! Have you ever read about such a character in young adult fiction before? Heck, how often have you read about a female like this, of any age, in any fiction? I was even more amazed when Katsa was thrown into contact with a young child, a girl of 10 who needs her protection, and still doesn’t change her mind about bearing children of her own. Even today, one is considered unnatural for making such a choice. Cashore’s decision to write of such a woman in a medieval setting it strikingly imaginative.
Katsa’s quest becomes, as so many quests do, a voyage of self-discovery, though not in the traditional sense (that is, she does not change her mind about who she is, but instead discovers more about what she is able to do). In this story, she is the hero rather than the rescued. She does the rescuing. It does not make her male counterparts any weaker, but only makes her stronger.
I fear I am making Graceling sound like a feminist polemic. It is not. It is an exciting and well-told tale about a pair of fascinating characters, Katsa and Po, and the challenges they face. The supporting characters are equally well-drawn; Randa’s son Raffin, for instance, is essentially a scientist who seems to have missed inheriting his father’s greed and cruelty. Still, I find Graceling remarkable mostly because Katsa is such a strong character.
I wish I’d had this sort of role model to read about when I was a young teenager. For me, Little Jo from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was about the only example I ever read of a girl who wanted to do something with her life besides get married and have babies — and even she wanted to write in addition to getting married and having babies. The idea that a woman could eschew the role of wife and mother was never presented to me. Thank goodness girls today know that that’s a choice, and that women like Kristin Cashore are writing characters who aren’t afraid to make that choice.