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REVIEW: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Dear Ms. Cashore,

As usual, I’m late to the party.   I meant to review your debut YA fantasy when it first came out but for various reasons, I fell behind.   That said, one reason it took me a bit longer than expected is because I had a difficult time getting into the book.   I’m ultimately glad I kept picking this book up again and again to give it another try but I’ll be honest.   That had more to do with the strength of the premise rather than the strength of the writing itself.

But before I go into that, let’s start at the beginning.   Graceling takes place in a pseudo-medieval fantasy world where certain people are gifted with extreme skills called Graces.   You can tell a person is Graced by their eyes — they don’t match colors.   Graces can take many forms.   For example, a person can be Graced with cooking and work as the palace chef, or with mathematical ability and work as the only female accountant in all the kingdoms, and so on and so on.

Our protagonist, Katsa, is Graced with killing.   Of all the possible Graces to have, this is probably the worst.   Graces like horse handling or gardening are harmless and even useful.   Killing, however is untrustworthy at best and dangerous at worst.   And for this reason, she’s forced to become her uncle, King Randa’s personal thug.   Is there a lord refusing to pay his taxes?   Send Katsa to break his arm.   Is there another lord refusing to give one of his daughters in marriage to a borderlord?   Send Katsa to torture him until one of the daughters break and agrees to marriage in order to save her father. As a result, people fear her and spread hateful stories about her that, unfortunately, are true.

Katsa hates her existence, what her uncle makes her do, and that it effectively reduces her to little more than an animal.   In retaliation, she formed the Council, a multi-country network that helps people in need.   In this way she’s able to make up for the wrongs she’s committed on her uncle’s orders.   During one such Council mission, Katsa rescues the elderly father of a neighboring king.   No one knows why he was kidnapped, but the Council intends to find out.   What they learn is worse than they could have ever imagined.

As I said, it’s the premise that drew me to this book.   A princess who’s preternaturally good at killing people?   Instead of wearing dresses, attending parties, and enjoying the attentions of courting suitors, she’s forced to become her uncle’s personal heavy?   Sounds exciting and fresh!   Which is was why I was surprised to find the first few chapters slow and hard to get into.   It wasn’t a matter of lack of action or plot. There was plenty of that.   I think it simply boiled down to a lack of tension and an odd blandness to Katsa.   I did warm up to Katsa as the book continued on but I was initially unimpressed despite her formidable abilities.

Part of that is my own fault.   With a premise like this, I did come in with preconceived notions. But I also think the only thing that makes Katsa interesting is her Grace.     Her personality itself is not very memorable.   She hates her uncle’s lackey, but why has she never thought of defying him before? She’s a near unstoppable killing machine. What in the world could he do to stop her if she tried? I know she’s young but given the world and set-up, I didn’t completely buy it that the sixteen-year-old Katsa would never think of walking away. There is an underlying thread dealing with her choosing between becoming the good person she wants to be or becoming the wild animal her uncle views her as, but it was overshadowed by this unexplained gap.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t things to like.   There are.   Katsa’s competence in survival and combat situations is refreshing.     Her interactions with Prince Po are delightful, although I thought the romantic plot had some pacing issues towards the middle of the book.   It just didn’t seem well-integrated with the rest of the plot and given what the two of them were pursuing at the time, I couldn’t help but find it out of place and mistimed.   Even so, I think the burgeoning romance between Katsa and Po, and its inherent conflict (no details here because I think knowing ahead of time detracts from the experience) is the strongest aspect of the book.   So strong in fact that I think it can mask some of the book’s weaker points.

And the biggest weak point for me was the antagonist.   I found his ability very creepy and insidious.   I think if it had been left at that, I would have loved him.   But it wasn’t left at that, and the traits tagged on to him reduced what could have been a brilliant antagonist into a cardboard villain.   What do I mean by “tagged?”   I mean, those identifying actions and traits characters are given to tag them as the hero or the villain.   Many readers here are familiar with villains who indulge in skanky sex.   It’s things like that.

In Graceling, the villain maims, tortures, and kills little animals.   Because as we all know, if you kill animals in a book, you are evil. And he doesn’t stop there. He maims, tortures, and kills children as well.   And perhaps “something more” if the child happens to be a girl. Now he’s Evil with a capital E. In fact, his motivation can be reduced to a single sentence. (Spoilers follow for those readers following on the feed.)

The villain had his father-in-law kidnapped to force his wife to stop protecting their daughter from his “attentions.”

Really?   That strikes me as a lot of trouble to go to, so much so that when I finished the book I flipped back to make sure I didn’t miss some crucial detail.  

I suppose, given the premise, I was expecting less black and white with regards to the presentation of the villain.   Compared to the conflict between Katsa and Po, it was very two-dimensional and disappointing.   There’s nothing necessarily wrong with extreme presentations of good and evil.   I think those kinds of stories have their place and their readers.   But when your protagonist is pretty grey herself, it’s a little disconcerting to realize the antagonist lacks that same nuance. I find calculating, cold villains more compelling than over-the-top evil and insane ones. Towards the end of the book, I actually felt that Graceling‘s antagonist had become a caricature and wasn’t frightening at all. Other readers may, and probably do, feel differently.

Aside from the Graces, the worldbuilding is nothing spectacular.   I’ve seen it countless times before in many a fantasy novel set in pseudo-medieval Europe.   It didn’t bother me here as much as it usually does, probably because of the presence of the Graces and what they mean for the general population, but readers looking for a more unique fantasy setting won’t find it here.   All things considered, after the glow from Katsa and Po’s relationship — which is truly a delight to read about — wore off, this ended up being a B- for me.

My regards,
Jia

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon or Powells or ebook format (Kindle only that I could find).

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

14 Comments

  1. orannia
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 16:03:06

    Thank you Jia! I agree, the premise sounds very interesting. Hmmm…now I’m torn. To read, or not to read…. Well, my library has it, so I’ve kind of answered my own question :) And I’m kind of on a YA fantasy run at the moment – I’ve just started reading Poison Study (Maria V Snyder).

  2. trisha
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 16:06:13

    I also had a rather lukewarm reaction to this, and I’m not sure exactly why. I did think the villain was a bit over-the-top, but it didn’t bother me excessively. Nor did the other issues mentioned. Part of it, perhaps, is that I was expecting more of a moral struggle within Katsa, but her internal conflict in this book, as far as her Grace was concerned, had more to do with escaping her uncle. In a way, I think I would have enjoyed a story about the creation and early days of the Council more, though I don’t think this entirely explains why I didn’t love the story we did get.

    That said, I can see why so many others–teens and adults–love Graceling, and I would definitely recommend it to fans of Tamora Pierce, especially. And I did find it intriguing enough to look forward to Bitterblue’s book, whenever that will be published.

  3. Jia
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 16:07:25

    @orannia: Oh, that’s right! Mira re-released Snyder’s Study series as YA this month, didn’t they? With new covers and everything too. (It wasn’t originally.)

  4. Jia
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 16:11:15

    @trisha: I actually had a really hard time articulating why I didn’t like this book as much as I thought I would. The ones I included were the easiest to pinpoint but underneath it all, there’s still something more that bothers me. It does have to do with Katsa’s characterization, as you mentioned. I think it might have something to do with the fact that we’re told she’s this and that and so on and so on, but I never really felt like we were shown it.

    All in all, it felt very much like a first novel where the pieces are all there but not quite in the right mix and integration.

  5. jennie
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 17:09:31

    Finally, someone else who doesn’t think Graceling is the best book ever! I liked it, but I also had problems with the characterization, and totally agree about the worldbuilding.

  6. Diana Peterfreund
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 20:09:03

    I really loved Graceling. It was one of the best books I’ve read this year. I found it slow in the beginning, too, but once I hit the big reveal, I couldn’t put it down, and I thought the romance was really original and gorgeously done.

    I’m curious though, where you said Katsa was 16. Where does it say that? I ask because at one point she says that Po looks about her age, around 20, and that threw me a bit becuase it was a YA novel (here in the U.S., at least. I think it’s published adult in the UK.)

  7. Steph
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 20:40:05

    Actually – and this is a huge shock to me because I usually agree with both your and Trisha’s assessments of books – the beginning grabbed me. And I loved the worldbuilding, but that’s because I’m not initiated in fantasy, love the medieval time period, and wouldn’t have been able to handle it if things were very very otherworldly. (Which goes to say, I think people who don’t like straying too deeply into pure fantasy will appreciate it.)

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree that the romance was mistimed. Sigh.

    Haven’t finished this one yet, but like you guys, I’m finding something impeding my overall enjoyment of the book and I can’t pinpoint what! >.< Very timely review, in any rate :) I’ll finish the book and go back to see how much it correlates with my problematic points!

    Steph

    ETA: Isn’t Katsa 18? It says she was 8 when they figured out her Grace and then it took a decade of training for her to get where she is… Just wondering.

  8. Tehani
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 05:33:04

    I’m a little bit jealous. Your book cover is so much prettier than the one I got here in Australia…!

  9. Estara
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 11:32:17

    You know, you might like Joshua Palmatier’s first Throne of Armenkor volume – The Skewed Throne, if you haven’t read it yet – judging from what drew you to this book.
    There’s a bit of a romance in the second half of that book but it’s squarely fantasy first and he doesn’t mince words when he has his girl child from the gutter made into a spy and assassin to survive her harsh world (basically it’s actually a kindness of a guard to train her like that) and, Lord, she has to survive some very heart-breaking things happening to her and what few people she cares for (which she doesn’t call caring, by the way) until she manages to win free from her former life and get a job as a bodyguard.

    Spoiler: At the end of the first book she manages to have a talent (though no blood relationship) that predestines her as one who can inherit the throne of Armenkor, so she does become sort of royalty, but has to deal with the weird things that this throne does to the reigning monarch./ End Spoiler

    It took me a long time to get through the first half of the book because I felt for the girl so much, but you don’t get cardboard villainy here, only hopeless and depraved villains and Machiavellian villains.

    Amazon description:

    “Power without control breeds a madness just as deadly as an empty stomach. That’s the key message in Palmatier’s intense fantasy debut set in the decadent, crumbling city of Amenkor. Palmatier succeeds admirably in passionate, if simplistic, prose to sketch a heartfelt portrait of Varis, a girl gifted with the supernatural ability to see innocence in gray and guilt in red after an unearthly fire sweeps through Amenkor for the second time, leaving insanity, illness and deadly change in its wake. Orphaned at six after her mother’s murder, Varis learns to survive by her wits in the Dredge, the market street outside Amenkor’s slums. As a young teen, she develops a knack for murder and thievery that attracts Erick, a royal guardsman who kills anyone the ruling Mistress wants eliminated. Due to her street smarts, Varis eventually escapes the Dredge to work as a bodyguard for a wealthy trader, only to realize that she can’t escape the mysterious destiny awaiting her within Amenkor’s “skewed throne.” This solid, earnest effort will especially appeal to young adults.”

  10. MB
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 13:09:50

    I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment on “Graceling” but I have to mention that the plot sounds like it is strongly “influenced by” Robin Hobb’s “Assassin” series as well as Maria V. Snyder’s “Poison” series.

  11. Jia
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 13:59:21

    @Steph: Maybe she is 18. I might have misremembered.

    @Tehani: Dare we ask what the Australian cover looks like?

    @Estara: You know, you’re not the first person to recommend those books to me. I might have to check them out. Thanks!

  12. Kristina Cook
    Dec 12, 2008 @ 14:41:41

    I’m so glad I found this review, because I just started this book last week and am having SUCH a hard time getting into it. I had already sort of decided to just give up on it, but it sounds like maybe it’ll be worth it if I persevere, so I’ll give it one more shot. There’s just something about the style of prose that I’m having a hard time warming up to.

    Here’s hoping it picks up soon!

  13. Chrissy
    Dec 15, 2008 @ 13:50:11

    I was glancing at this one yesterday simply because I liked the cover. Think I’m going to give it a try.

    If nothing else at least it sounds more classical fantasy-ish than the constant parade of vampire teen romances I’m getting bored with.

  14. Kristin Cashore – Graceling « Fyrefly's Book Blog
    Nov 22, 2009 @ 23:24:14

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