Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

Kristin Cashore, a graduate of Williams College and Simmons College, has lived in quite a few of the major cities of the world. Recently she’s settled in Cambridge, MA. She’s apparently been writing for the children’s educational market for a while, and she’s published two YA fantasy novels under her own name: this one and its companion, Fire (review forthcoming). There is a third book, Bitterblue, which is still in the process of being written, also set in the same world, to be published, well, some time after it’s finished, and I have no date on that yet.

In the land of the Seven Kingdoms, some babies are born with eyes that are both the same color, but by the time they are toddlers, their eyes change to be two different colors, such as blue and green or silver and gold. If so, they are said to have a ‘Grace,’ to be possessed of some sort of gift. It may be as innocuous as being able to make the best bread ever–in which case they will probably go work for the kitchens in the royal castle–or it may be like Katsa’s: killing. Katsa is the niece of one of the kings of the Seven Kingdoms, and she has been used as an assassin many times over the years. This is the story of Katsa coming to terms with, well, being gifted at killing.

Well. Sort of. It’s also about politics and it’s a love story and a tale of survival and rescue and all sorts of other things. But at its heart, it’s Katsa’s coming-of-age story.

The politics are because, well, there are seven kingdoms and of course there are going to be power struggles, especially when there’s a particularly evil king sitting on one of the thrones with a particularly evil Grace. The love story is between Katsa and Po, who is Graced with fighting (maybe), and who is the youngest son of another king. He’s a suitable mate for her–not just politically but by temperament and Grace–but Katsa isn’t particularly interested for various reasons. At least, not at first. The survival and rescue, well, I’m not going to tell you about that because it would give away more of the plot than I’m willing to do.

Katsa is a strong, multi-faceted character; readers looking for strong, multi-faceted female characters will not be disappointed. Readers who enjoy richly-described fantasy worlds with interesting geography and a strange new form of magic will definitely be interested in this story. The male characters are pretty interesting, as well; not just Po but the other people in Katsa’s household, especially Prince Raffin. The pacing of the plot is fairly good as well, although the adventure part of the story stretched on a bit longer than I wanted. Readers more invested in the action than the romance will probably be happy, though.

The problem I had with Graceling is that I felt that the interpersonal conflict was pretty much all manufactured by the heroine herself and I have very little patience for, well, that. Essentially to me it felt like Katsa was saying, “Oh, woe is me! For I am a freak and shall never, ever find a man who will accept me as I am, the kind of woman who doesn’t really like to wear skirts and likes to kill things! All men want to change me and make me into the kind of woman who has to stay home and not kill things!” And standing right next to her was Po, saying also the entire time, “Um, hi. I’m Po. Right here. Hey. Standing here. Oh, what the hell–you’ll come around someday.” Now, I’m a fan of self-discovery and not necessarily falling madly in love with the first guy to come by who seems not to be the world’s biggest jerk, but I think I would have preferred the story where she realized that he appeared to be the kind of man who wouldn’t expect her to change but was still suspicious and wanted to hold out judgment, rather than flat-out denying to herself that that man could even exist.

Then again, I’m twenty-eight and Katsa is eighteen, and perhaps I’m expecting her to act more like me. But I spent half the book mad at her because of this–and she seemed to be pretty decent at all other times–so I’d like to note it here. Younger readers, or those who are better at accepting characters at face value, will probably not notice it, or be less annoyed.

Honestly, this was a good read, and an excellent addition to the oeuvre, and it’s possible I’ve just got the strangest set of biases on the planet. I’d recommend it to pretty much anyone who’s interested in the genre, frankly; it’s got a little bit of everything and it does it all awfully well. 4/5 stars.

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