As part of the MiniBookExpo, hosted by the fabulous Alexa Clark, I snagged a pre-release copy of Kristin Cashore's debut teen/youg-adult novel, Graceling. I love MiniBookExpo - if you haven't headed over there yet and snagged a book to review, you should do so immediately.
Onto the book. This is the blurb from the publisher that got me hooked ...
Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.
She never expects to learn the truth behind her Grace—or the terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.
Yay, a strong female central character! We need more of these. Not that I didn't love the Harry Potter phenom, but still.
I like a book that packs an emotional wallop. Cashore writes a lot of emotion into and around her characters. I was FURIOUS by the end of the first section (there are three); a lot of this is because Katsa, the main character, is a very angry and wild young woman and Cashore's writing evokes that emotion. However, I did find that my emotional response to Katsa made me more likely to pick some nits: she doesn't come across as particularly self-aware and even though she is definitely *in charge* physically, she still has to have a man rescue her emotionally, or at least point out a few things that I would have thought would have been self evident.
The introduction of the characters Po and Bitterblue rounded out the emotional roller coaster for me. Po's calming influence on Katsa and his ideas about trust and relationships really helped her grow as a character and helped me empathize with her a lot more.
From a narrative point of view, Graceling has a lot going for it: adventure, intrigue, romance, betrayal, an extra-creepy villain, cool psychic abilities, and lady pirates. Yes, lady pirates! OK, just lady sea captains - but I imagine Captain Faun would be an AWESOME pirate.
Sex was dealt with really well - often a touchy subject in young-adult novels. Actually everything dealing with love, sex, trust and intimate relationships was quite nicely handled. The culture around husbands and wives. The uber-subtle same-sex relationship between a couple of secondary characters (Am I projecting? Maybe.) And Katsa's adamance against marriage, particularly what it does to a woman's power and independence. The nuance around relationships in Graceling is one of its major highlights.
The biggest criticism I have of the book is everything around the Council - a secret network of do-gooders and their supporters across the Seven Kingdoms. Katsa herself started the Council in response to some of the injustices she saw perpetuated by a number of the Kings in the Seven Kingdoms, injustices she may even have carried out herself. I found it difficult to believe that Katsa would have the presence of mind and morality to start such an organization and yet continue to be so insecure and weak-minded in her day to day interactions with King Randa, her bully of an uncle. Fortunately, all this comes to a head at the end of Part 1 and provides momentum for the rest of the book - yet I still found myself questioning Katsa's incredible maturity and foresight on one hand, and seeming lack of self-awareness on the other.
Cashore has done a fine job of creating the interesting and diverse world in which Graceling is set. In fact, one of the things that makes Graceling really compelling to read is that there is clearly so much culture associated with Gracelings and with the Seven Kingdoms. What is their heritage? How many different types of Graces are there? Do the seven kingdoms deal with Gracelings differently? How did the Lienid culture seem to evolve so differently? At some point in her writing future, I would love to see a collection of short stories from Cashore that give some visibility into some of these questions or other aspects of the culture and mythology of Gracelings across the Seven Kingdoms.
In any case, I would definitely recommend Graceling. It picks up a lot of momentum after Part 1 and I absolutely couldn't put it down. Katsa
stops being a jerk gains some significant self-confidence and undergoes some solid character development. The narrative clipped along nicely and provided a couple of great "gotcha" moments. I found the ending satisfying while not cliche and was definitely left wanting to know more about the main characters and the world they inhabit.
While you're waiting for Cashore's next book (Fire, a prequel to Graceling to be released in October 2009), make sure you subscribe to her blog. Cashore is funny, engaging and often has a number of "laugh-out-loud" moments in her posts.
Related Helpful Links: