Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Anyone else remember all the hype Graceling got YEARS ago?
I’d assumed it was an exaggeration–isn’t most hype?–but I was wrong. I was very wrong.
IMMA GO AHEAD AND HYPE IT UP ALL OVER AGAIN NOW 8 YEARS AFTER THE FACT BECAUSE IT’S JUST. SO. GOOD!
Graceling follows the teenage assassin of the king whose special magical skill, her Grace of killing makes her largely unconquerable. But then she meets Prince Po whose fighting Grace makes him the closest to an even match she’s ever experienced. So when Po leaves to investigate a sinister magical plot on the other side of their world, Katsa joins him on his journey. What follows is a sometimes harrowing tale of a mysterious king, a secret power, an entire kingdom corrupted thanks to one man’s powerful lie and the pairing set to right it all.
The best thing about this book is Katsa. Before I fully delve into her (oh believe me, I will), note that Graceling was published way back in 2008 when strong female characters had not yet become the norm. That said, Katsa at the time would have been in league only with Katniss and a few choice others, so when I say she stands out even now, just think of how great she would have been then. So so so so SO worth the hype.
Katsa’s Grace appears to be killing which is a decidedly ‘unfeminine’ quality, according to our unfortunate world. Consequently, instead affording her the rights (read: duties) of a woman in her medieval-esque world, the king uses her as a lackey/his own personal assassin. First of all, I LOVE when the MCs are fighters/killers/warriors so obviously was Katsa already right up my alley, but what makes her striking is that she can be the person the king forces her to be and still a genuinely good person. The King literally sends her on missions to torture people, or to maim, or to kill and most of the time she really does it; it should be easy, then, for readers to dismiss Katsa as a monster from the get-go. And then you discover the ways she uses her position to secretly perform missions of rescue and goodwill, which adhering to the king’s demands helps to keep hidden. Does that completely make up for it all? Certainly not, and she acknowledges that. But it’s something, and it’s a big something at that.
I’m not getting much into the whole feminism debate that appears rampant among goodreads reviews but what I will say is this: I do believe Cashore makes an effort in many ways to demonstrate the equality and freedom of choice that feminism represents but I’ll concede that in terms of the ‘feminine vs. masculine’ debate she sometimes falls back. Katsa’s aversion to anything she considers ‘girly’ can be constituted as unnecessary from a feminist perspective (and that side of me agrees) but I am choosing to look at her only like a reader; as that reader, I still enjoyed it.
Moving on! Katsa’s struggle with her Grace is also a major positive element because it’s easy to understand. She’s afraid to embrace that side of her too fully because she knows what she’s capable of when she loses control and yet at the same time she finds comfort in her Grace, like an old reliable friend. When Katsa gets angry, she gets violent–we’re channeling some serious Hulk vibes over here–so she spends the book learning to tackle and rein in her anger. Oh look! Is that an imperfection I see? A flaw? Something that makes you real? Bingo! And even better–she battles it tooth and nail right down to the end. So it’s not a minor thing thrown in to make someone a little less shiny and perfect, nor is it a small inconvenience they tackle with ease–it’s big and it’s bad and it allows Katsa’s perseverance to shine through in a situation that despite the fantastical nature is in many ways all too relatable. Additionally, she’s smart and brave and determined with a healthy dose of attitude and a good sense of humour–what more could you want?
Po really is lovely; I fell for him in an instant. He offers the perfect balance to Katsa’s character–where she’s rough, he’s soft; she’s fiery, he’s sweet–but also a perfect match in humour, in determination, and even in combat which is a major requirement for the two. He’s strong also as his own character and even though the focus is definitely Katsa, you get to see him oh so clearly through her. Something else I really really liked is that their relationship is unconventional for YA romance: they’re lovers, not boyfriend-girlfriend or anything more. With that title comes certain freedoms within their relationship that we usually don’t get to see in books and are really interesting to explore.
The overall story was good too! A little slow at first, with a lot of world-building but it picks up part-way through and the story itself is very unique and constantly intriguing. There are lulls in action and excitement–that much is indisputable–but the overall it’s very well done. Graceling is also very character-centric so often when the plot plateaus it’s because Katsa’s working through something.
As a whole I really liked Graceling. It combines historical fantasy with mystery and magic in an entirely new, refreshing way. I have many regrets about not reading it waaaaaaay sooner.
Click here for the book synopsis on goodreads!