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Monday, September 14, 2009

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Pages: 480
Release Date: October 1, 2008

Graceling is Kristin Cashore’s debut novel and to be honest, it read like one. The focus of the plot was confused and I wasn’t sure if this was supposed to be a fantastic adventure with a romance in it or a fantasy romance with some dismissible action going on in the background.

Katsa is one of the few in her world of seven kingdoms born with extraordinary abilities manifesting at any age with a disconcerting physical clue: the eyes of a Graceling (a person with a Grace--one of these rare talents, or abilities) are each a different color. In this way, it makes it difficult for a Graceling to hide who they are; Katsa has every reason to wish she could change her eye color into something more normal. Graced with the ability to kill, Katsa has become her uncle’s, King Randa, attack dog after the death of her parents leaves her orphaned. In her position, she’s developed an unwanted, albeit slightly deserved reputation, if embellished by the murderous acts she undertakes on her uncle’s behalf. Suffice to say, Randa isn’t a well-loved King by any means and Katsa, with her Grace being what it is, exploited under King Randa, is feared by pretty much everyone. This turns the nomenclature to an ironic insult as Katsa’s Grace is anything but a blessing. Cursed to live with the guilt of making people feel incredibly uncomfortable, not to mention having little to no physical contact or emotional connections, Katsa’s life seems far from envious.

Lucky for her, she has a small circle of close friends who know how best to deal with what proves to be a difficult character and narrative point of view. When the father of a neighboring King is kidnapped, Katsa and her friends rescue him under the nose of her uncle. The Prince’s (if you’re royalty at all, even retired, you’re still a Prince or Princess here) grandson soon comes looking for his grandfather and Katsa must decide whether to answer his plea for help and risk incurring the wrath of Randa or staying home and waiting until her next mission requires her to fix a petty grudge with deadly violence.

Although Katsa is a very difficult protagonist, she does unclench a bit and develop a warmth that would have been unexpected in the beginning of the book. She’s hard to relate to, but understandably bitter and harsh. At times this could be annoying--Katsa frequently fought internally to work through emotional decisions that would otherwise be easy for someone raised to think more positively and highly of themselves. But the switch in perspective was refreshing. Katsa’s intellectual curiosity grows out of a calculated examination of her physical limitations in what appears to be detached sparring and weapon experiments. She tests herself for the joy and practicality of knowing if she can, in fact, do whatever she attempts.

Katsa also very bravely stands up for herself in full disclosure of the consequences she tangles with, but moves forward for her own sanity and well-being anyway. I liked this a lot--her character is strong all around, both physically and mentally capable of exerting her power as a fighter and an individual. In the end, she’s more than competent and a female, something she takes advantage of when she takes it upon herself to teach self-defense to Bitterblue. This is remarkable in the context of the book where females are largely, if not exclusively never taught any sort of physical self-defense whether it’s with weapons or without; remarkable as a character because it’s always empowering for girls and women to read about strong, independent lead characters.

Bitterblue is another example of a stunning female character who, at just 10 years old, holds herself with dignity and an air of authority quite unexpected and mature. Cashore can write strong female characters.

I’m not sure how to resolve the inclusion of a wonderful, if at times awkwardly placed, romance. The first part of the book is more concerned with examining Katsa’s relationship to her cousin Raffin, an ill-suited suitor, Po, King Randa, and Helda. The kidnapping takes a vague backseat to all of this and I never felt it was of much importance or consequence until the second part when Katsa becomes directly involved in solving the mystery of the kidnapper’s identity. Even with that relevance, the novel quickly becomes saturated with a romance I thought was honestly not going to become apparent until the end of the book. Couldn’t we enjoy their wonderful friendship a little longer? Does everything have to be touched by romance? In this case, it seems Cashore is telling the reader that a young woman can have it all: a career, confidence, competence, exceptional talent, and sex. Nevermind the expectation that all relationships lead to marriage: Katsa runs the phrase dry when she continually has to repeat herself and tell everyone, including her sudden lover, that she will never marry. To which he quite readily agrees to suffer happily through what at first appears to be a physical relationship punctuated by prolonged absences. By the end of the book, this is proved false, although I was left a little unfulfilled with vague promises substituting concrete commitment. Now that I think back on it, it’s very much in keeping with Katsa’s character and I completely believe in the longevity of her relationship with that person I shall not name because it’s a spoiler.

While the book seemed to pick up at the second part, it was only in the last 60 pages that I couldn’t put the book down. The Big Confrontation happens, but there’s still 50 pages left which, again, made me feel like the kidnapping wasn’t as important as Katsa’s love life and its resolutions. I wasn’t in suspense about the kidnapping until we meet the kidnapper--an inclusion I wish had been granted to the other Kings so I could see why they were so bad rather than sit reading Katsa’s opinion on why they were bad. I don’t know about you, but as a reader, I hate having to trust what a character tells me about another character. I want to read that character doing all this bad or good stuff I keep hearing about and quite frankly, was creeped out by the kidnapper when Katsa actually meets him. And I liked that! I felt more involved, more invested in the book at that point than I had for the previous few hundred pages. This guy was absolutely scary and the atmosphere was thick with suspense when he was around.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the ending--I did (for the most part), I think overall I just wish the book would have been longer. I didn’t want to leave Katsa’s world quite so soon. The drama of the book revolves more around Katsa’s relationships, her development as a character in relation to them; the action of the plot surrounding her is the backdrop. Which, if I think about from a feminist perspective, is actually not at all innovative. It’s unsurprising, really, since women have always been referred to in relation to other people (Mother, Daughter, Sister, Wife, etc...)--Katsa’s saving grace (no pun intended) is that her major roles were quite innovative--as an orphan, she is not a daughter, she refuses to marry, she has no siblings, she’s a fighter (in her world, a man’s role); that so much of her plot presence revolved around her lover is also what made me wish more for a prolonged friendship rather than the romance that for me, while expected, was a bit too soon. It was my main disappointment, but not enough to make me dislike the book. I did find it amusing that she constantly touted her plan to never have children and yet, did a wonderful, if a bit on the purely dutiful side, caring for Bitterblue.

And in the end, what’s important is Cashore’s examination of the following questions: “When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?” (p. 137) I’d recommend Graceling to YA fantasy fans, particularly those interested in a female character that literally kicks ass. Katsa turned out to be a beautiful and empowering protagonist who takes her destiny into her own hands and changes the perception others have built up of her. I’ll be interested to see if the upcoming prequel Fire has any of what I’ve missed in this one!

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