Oh, I liked Graceling, but I want to like it a whole lot more. I want to like … perform surgery on this book to remove a bunch of stuff and graft new limbs to it in a kind of Frankensteiny horror show way and then it would be so much better. Kristin Cashore has an interesting idea here and provides all the requisite basics, but she never quite takes the story or the characters far enough. Unlike The Crown’s Game, where I struggled to identify what it was that made me enjoy the book so much, I know exactly why I liked Graceling. Yet there’s also just so many flaws screaming out to be fixed. Instead of a “love it or hate it” book, there’s plenty of room on either end, or in my case, right in the middle in a puddle of ambivalence.
Katsa is an eponymous “graceling”, so called because she has a Grace. You can have a Grace for really mundane things, like tree-climbing, or cooking. In Katsa’s case the Grace is supposedly for killing/fighting, but we eventually learn it’s actually survival. More on that later. So Graces are basically like having an uber-talent. While you think that would make you popular, six of the seven kingdoms (hmm, seven kingdoms … where have I heard that one before?) treat gracelings like royal chattel. If you have a “useful” Grace, like Katsa’s, you’re little better than an indentured servant to the king. If you have a boring Grace, you’re shunned because your two eyes are different colours (and I guess that’s … bad?).
Much of your opinion of the story is going to depend on Katsa, and she is a difficult protagonist to like. She acts like a wild thing at times, impulsive and rude and violent at the slightest of troubles. There’s good reason for this, mind you—as soon as her uncle, King Randa, learned of her Grace at the tender age of eight, he locked her up and started treating her like a prized hound instead of, you know, an actual person or anything. Randa is not a very nice character, and the beginning of Katsa’s awakening is the realization that he derives a lot of his power from her. When she refuses to carry out his orders, she turns the tables and reclaims her power for herself.
There’s something so compelling about this act of seizing one’s autonomy, particularly for a female character. Cashore charts Katsa’s growth from obedient, if reluctant, assassin and thug into someone more independent, someone who allows herself to have romantic feelings and sexual desires, someone who avoids killing or hurting people unless it’s strictly necessary. This transformation is powerful, and I like the way Cashore pulls it off.
Much to my surprise, I also enjoyed the romance element! The back of the book features a blurb from the LA Times promising “a knee-weakening romance that easily rivals that of Twilight” and I almost wanted to vomit, because Twilight does not feature a romance I want any part of. Fortunately, instead of the incredible power imbalance of “oh hey I’m a couple hundred years older than you and I watch you when you sleep and, oops, I knocked you up with a vampire baby so now I’m going to make you a vampire, you down for that?” it’s more like “oh wow, both these characters have skills the other one doesn’t have and they can hold their own with each other in fights physical and verbal”. This romance is not a rival to Twilight’s: it is downright better and healthier than Twilight’s.
Furthermore, I really have to hand it to Cashore for portraying a romantic relationship that doesn’t end in marriage. If marriage is what you and your partner want, then go for it; I’m not trying to say that all marriage is bad. But it’s unfortunate that a great deal of romance, particularly romance in these high fantasy kind of stories, sees marriage as the ultimate destination for pairings. I was worried that Katsa’s insistence on not marrying would mean either that Po has to die or she will have to change. Instead, we get Po’s smug little reminder to Katsa that, hey, they could totally be lovers. Katsa’s steadfast rejection of marriage and children sends a strong signal to the reader that it is OK for a woman to be interested in other things—not just to like things in addition to wanting babies, but to not want babies at all, ever.
As much as I enjoyed Katsa’s growth, however, other aspects of her characterization are not so good. For instance, she is quite overpowered. The revelation that her Grace is survival rather than killing is powerful, for it totally reverses Katsa’s perspective on who she is: her power is life, not death. I love that part of it. And while I can appreciate the tenacity it takes to single-handedly get a child through an inhospitable mountain pass in the dead of winter, I’m not sure Cashore has Katsa face any real challenges in this book. Even Leck, who in his first encounter bests Katsa so much that she basically forgets the whole thing and we have to learn about it from Po, proves pretty easy to dispatch. (This book is basically a high fantasy version of Jessica Jones, which I love in some respects, but David Tennant plays a much more interesting villain than whoever is playing Leck here.) Pretty much everyone likes Katsa, too, despite the fact we keep being told that no one likes her. She has a ton of friends, and everyone she meets falls for her! Katsa verges upon being, if she is not outright, a Mary Sue, and that undermines a lot of the significance her character has.
In much the same way, I wish Cashore had spent more time examining Katsa’s twisted adolescence and her abuse at the hands of Randa. He doesn’t feature in too many scenes here, though, and he is fairly flat and one-note in each of his appearances. We get the sense that Randa does not appreciate Katsa as a person or think her very intelligent; he just wants her to follow orders and hurt people who owe him fealty and money. One of the problems with abuse, however, is that even once one leaves their abuser, the effects of that abuse don’t just go away. Katsa’s transformation and recovery are rather shallow.
This lack of depth proves to be Graceling’s chief deficit, and it crops up elsewhere. Consider the setting: five of the kingdoms are called Nander, Estill, Sunder, Wester, and Middluns. I’ll let you guess where they are in relation to each other, once you finish rolling your eyes at the lack of originality. Oh wait, I forgot about a sixth kingdom called Monsea. You’ll never guess which terrains define its borders! Cashore doesn’t waste much of the budget on establishing a unique setting; it’s pretty much your cookiecutter fantasy setting (TVTropes), complete with helpful inns popping up everywhere. The kings tend to be corrupt and bickering, except when they are outright evil (like Leck) or uncharacteristically wise and beneficent (like Ror). Subtlety and shades of grey there are not. The thing is, Graceling is a long book! There should have been plenty of room to explore these things, flesh out the setting, properly deal with Katsa’s past. Instead most of these pages are taken up by detailed descriptions of going from one place to another.
I guess if I wanted to resolve my ambivalence I might try to sum up Graceling this way: it’s a dull fantasy novel but a good story. I don’t think it has universal appeal or is a “must read”, but I like what Cashore attempts to do here, with varying degrees of success. I don’t know if I’ll seek out the other two books in the series (the second is a prequel, the third a sequel), but we’ll see.