Graceling — Kristin Cashore

Katsa is a Graceling. This means that she’s got the gift of having one perfect, otherworldly skill. Some are Graced with the ability to read minds. Others have the ability to sense storms. Some are really awesome tree climbers. Katsa’s Grace, however, isn’t that lighthearted. She’s been Graced with the ability to kill. Her uncle, the vain King Randa, has made her his thug. He uses her abilities to keep people who defy him in check — regardless of whether or not they deserve Katsa’s unique attention.

Katsa hates her life. Her uncle constantly reminds her that to him, she’s nothing but a hunting dog, a dangerous wild animal whose Grace has made her less than human. Stories of her brutality have spread all across the land — as have stories of the suffering of the common folk, who labor under the burden of vainglorious kings. Katsa, and her deadly Grace, can save them. She creates a Council, a loosely organized network of noblemen, innkeepers, peasants, and others. This Council organizes strikes against oppressive governments, and rescues those who have been menaced by their rulers.

You intrigued? Because that’s just the background, not the actual plot. I haven’t even told you that yet.

Even after Katsa’s created the Council, she still feels herself to be alone. She refuses to marry (which I like — she also knows the herbs necessary to stay baby-free! :D) and is only really close to her cousin Raffin, Randa’s healer of a son, and Oll, the man who trained her. That is, until she meets Po, another Graceling with a power able to strike fear in the hearts of those he holds dear. Together, Po and Katsa unravel a mystery threatening the very fabric of the seven kingdoms. Along the way, Katsa learns that there’s more to her gift than murder.

I really loved this book. First — at its heart it’s a travel story centered on a female character’s coming of age. That’s a danggone rarity in fantasy. Secondly, it features two female characters overcoming psychological trauma inflicted upon them as part of the baggage associated with growing up in a patriarchal society. Some of the ad-copy described Katsa as “half-wild” — I’d actually describe her as painfully sane in a world where women are penalized for that. At the same time, Captain Faun, the Queen of Liened, Helda, and Ashen all emerge as vital, capable women able to resist and subvert authority in a variety of ways. Plus, a few of the male characters also work to subvert dominant social structures. Raffin and Bann are both gentle healers, and have an unusually close friendship. Po is a loving, empathic son.

I’d very eagerly recommend this to a teen/tween reader. Heck, I’m almost thirty, and I was amazed at the tightness of the narratives, the subtle reiteration of particular motifs, and the evolving language used as Katsa began to think of herself as more human. This is categorized as being a young adult book, but seriously? It’s just quality. This book ignores the marriage mandate, discusses multiple kinds of love, has a kick-ass heroine with a commitment to social justice, and features an awesome, awesome friendship between two lonely girls. I am sad I have to return this to the library. :(

Graceling

Comments

  1. says

    Word.

    Not to mention it’s one of the only things where a female character is set up as basically undefeatable…and she stays that way. And I love that when she and Po spar, she always wins, and he’s completely okay with that. I don’t think I’ve EVER seen that before.

  2. the OTHER Maria says

    Me neither!

    The only times I HAVE seen it, it’s coupled with some crazy Mary Sue-ness, like in the Anita Blake series. Katsa is both undefeatable AND a realistically flawed character.

  3. the OTHER Maria says

    I don’t recall any POC but there was reference to ethnic difference, so there might be POC in future books in the series.

  4. Zahra says

    I LOVED this book.

    At first I thought yawn-one-of-those-dull-everyone-is-white-fake-Euro-medieval-background-fantasy-novels, but (while there aren’t any POC, and the world is exactly that kind of fake medieval backdrop that often irritates me) the quality of the writing, the character development, and what I call intelligent feminism totally won me over. I loved that the relationships between women mattered, and that Katsa feels her way toward not only liberating herself but also helping other women without directing their lives. I loved the plot twists. I loved the development of relationships, the way that multiple characters grow and change, and that Katsa develops a great deal as a human being without losing or sacrificing her kickass qualities.

    My only real complaint was the depiction of Raffin and Bann, whom the book clearly coded as a couple but went to some lengths never to openly acknowledge. (The author has commented in interviews that she intended them to be read as a same-sex couple by those in the know but to fly under other people’s radar.) As a member of the GLBT community I have gotten this I’ll-stand-with-you-as-long-as-no-one-else-knows-I’m-standing-with-you fair-weather friendship all too often, and I for one am sick of it.

    Beyond my personal exhaustion with the coded queer character cliche, though, I found its use jarring within the book, which very early on uses the idea of a relationship between Katsa & Raffin as a mislead. It read like–look! Katsa & Raffin are going to get together! Oh, no, they’re not, because, well, if you haven’t figured it out we aren’t going to tell you. It was the one sour note in an otherwise beautifully orchestrated piece.

    seemed disingenuous.

  5. the OTHER Maria says

    I def read Bann and Raffin as a queer couple. I wonder, though, if the reason that they’re an ambiguously gay duo is because of the references to contraceptive use and the questioning of marriage as a whole. For a young adult book marketed primarily towards girls, that’s very, very radical. Maybe the publisher pushed Cashore to back down on that? I say that because I actually know some of the faculty at Simmons with whom she worked on this project, and I think they’d’ve called her on that if there weren’t a concrete reason to back down from it. That’s not to meant to be an excuse, but is instead more of an explanation.

    I also didn’t see Raffin and Katsa as ever possibly being a couple. Unlike in HP, where it’s all “OMG which ship is the good ship?” I liked that Cashore presented a loving friendship between men and women as being a distinctly awesome possibility… and that the kind of affection that grows between Po and Katsa is similar to the affection between her and Raffin in terms of being nurturing and whatever, on top of their sexual chemistry. I liked that the book was as much — if not more — about friendship as it was about romantic love.

  6. M.C. says

    I recently finished Graceling (which was awesome) and the companion novel Fire (which was even more awesome because of the strong pro-choice message). Next up is Bitterblue in which Raffin & Bann are officially outed and we are introduced to some more lgbt characters. Kristin Cashore might have just become my favourite new author.

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