by Kristin Cashore
Publication Date: August 2008
Genres: YA, Fantasy, Romance
In the world Cashore creates in her debut novel Graceling, certain individuals are “graced” with powers, from the mundane and practical, like being a world class cook or musician, to the deadly. Katsa (our heroine) is Graced with killing, making her an unmatched fighter, one known and feared throughout the world.
And yet, for all her strength, Katsa find herself the increasingly unwilling muscle enforcing her uncle, King Randa’s, ruthless rule through ever more barbaric forms of intimidation and torture. She is often awkward, confused by her own feelings, and full of a righteous anger that often leads her to lose control. As Katsa grows up, she finds it increasingly impossible to put up with the violence her Uncle wishes her to inflict and, with the help of her friends and a growing number of allies begins to push back against those who would control her and work against peace between the nations.
This is an immensely readable book from the first pages, jumping right into the action and setting the course for an enthralling adventure. From the texts opening moments, we are dropped into the middle of a rescue mission by Katsa (our heroine) and her team and we see her effortlessly breeze through an array of guards to get to her destination. That is, until she comes face to face with a mysterious stranger, another Graced (you can tell the Graced by their eyes, which are two different colors) with skill in fighting, from whom she barely escapes. When this stranger, who turns out to be a Prince in search of the captive that Katsa and her friends have saved, appears in Randa’s kingdom shortly after, the two begin to work together to take on an even larger and more hidden enemy and learn more about themselves, and their Graces, in the process.
In Graceling , Cashore takes some typically fantasy elements, the rebellious heroine who hates dresses and a savior prince who is too cute for words, and shifts them just enough that we don’t find ourselves confronted with flat stereotypes. The character growth from Katsa is truly compelling, as she learns to trust herself and others, with my struggles and fallbacks, after a lifetime of viewing herself as a monster.
The love story that flows from this growth is compelling (if at times problematic in its violence). The presentations of some other choices for women and the idea that happiness can be found in different kinds of relationships with other people too was a nice change of pace and a prescient critique of marriage as an institution that remains problematic, no matter how wonderful and egalitarian the partner. While I struggle with texts that present women’s only option to strength/power as adapting a “masculine” form of strength, I think Cashore does attempt to complicate this idea in Katsa’s growth and her relationship with Bitterblue.
I think the biggest disappointment for me was the villain of the story. He just plain Evil, with all the tried and true markings of a villain, and none of the complexity that shows us how or why he got to this terrible existence or what any of his motivations might be or have once been. While the concept of this villain’s Grace (and I’m being purposely vague here to try to avoid any spoilers) is extremely interesting, his lack of characterization left that aspect of the story a bit flat.
Overall though, I really enjoyed reading Graceling and am excited by trends in YA that give our beloved heroines some other choices than married or rebelliously, but bitterly, alone.
Have you read Graceling? What did you think of Katsa as a heroine? Let me know in the comments!