Graceling by Kristin Cashore
I don’t know where I picked up the recommendation for Graceling. It’s a shame, because I should trust that source unconditionally in the future about reading.
Graceling is the story of Katsa, a young woman with a special ability (called a Grace) of killing. Used as an attack dog since childhood by her petty uncle, King Randa, Katsa has founded a secret organization called the Council to right wrongs across the land. When the Council rescues a kidnapped royal grandfather, Katsa encounters Po, a prince Graced with fighting, and gets sucked into a sinister plot that could affect all seven kingdoms of Katsa’s world.
Katsa is a fantastic main character- prickly, determined, serious, and sheltered, Katsa comes of age during the course of the novel. She’s slightly alien, due to her Grace, and it’s wonderful to see how she perceives the world differently and how the world treats her. Katsa is not used to people looking her in her eyes (the Graced have heterochromia, or differently colored eyes), and when she disobeys her uncle, he summons her to the throne room, with his personal guard training their bows on her. I have to admit, I was inordinately pleased when Katsa was horrified at discovering a friend of hers harbored great affection for her- it was humanizing, and, for me personally, a way for me to identify with her. She reminds me of Elphaba from Wicked, although she’s much more sympathetic. I love prickly female characters, but they’re difficult to write. Cashore has succeeded admirably here.
Po is a great foil to someone like her- he’s flippant, charming, and open. They clash at court and in the arena; Katsa is happy to finally have a sparring partner who will actually give her a challenge. The third main character, Bitterblue, Po’s cousin, who shows up much later, is just as marvelously realized as Katsa. Pint-sized, determined, unsure, and dignified, Bitterblue is, come to think of it, even more realized than Po is, despite her smaller presence in the novel. I was delighted to discover that Cashore’s next novel will focus on her after the events of Graceling. To tell you the villain’s identity would be to spoil the novel, but it’s unexpected and terrifying- just like the character.
The romance is handled well, although I felt it started a bit too quickly. Katsa’s great promises to herself- that she will never marry, and that she will never have children- aren’t compromised, to my utmost relief. Despite their initial clashes as friends, Katsa and Po’s romance is refreshingly simple, once they figure out a way to be together without compromising Katsa’s promises to herself. Around each other, they can simply be themselves. It’s quite sweet.
However, Graceling is mostly a thrilling adventure, especially as it gets deeper and deeper into the plot Katsa and Po are investigating. The action and the suspense is done beautifully- during the climactic scene, I could barely keep myself from reading ahead just to make sure everything was alright. I don’t have any notes from the second half of the book, because I was too into the action. A scene where Katsa and Bitterblue attempt to cross an impassable mountain pass made me sit on the edge of my seat, and reminded me of nothing so much as the latter half of The Left Hand of Darkness. Cashore’s sense of pacing and foreshadowing is superb.
The world Cashore has made is quite accessible, which is always good for fantasy. There’s a map handily included in the first few pages, and the names of the kingdoms tend to indicate where they’re located. Customs and landscapes are fairly distinctive, especially Lienid, the island country where Po hails from. The Graces are handled deftly- there’s an element of powers manifesting to those who need them, which I love in anything concerning special abilities. Graces are complicated and can even be deceptive to their owners. The social ramifications of having a Grace are huge; simply consider Katsa, who has been forced to kill for her uncle since she was eight. However, there’s some gaps in the world building. I winced when I learned that one of the kings of the seven kingdoms was named Thigpen, which is less of a descriptive name than a nominal blow to the head. Katsa makes a glowering remark about eating a certain herb that will render her infertile… only to use it as protection with Po. Still, these are fairly minor quibbles to me in an overwhelmingly wonderful novel.
Bottom line: A thrilling fantasy adventure with a dash of romance, Graceling, with its prickly, unique heroine and interesting world, is simply superb.
I rented this book from the public library.