Graceling by Kristen Cashore

March 1, 2010

Harcourt, 2008

Finished: Feb 21?

Source: Fyrefly’s book blog

Genre: YA high fantasy

On the Scales: welterweight

I could have written an enthusiastic review when I first put this down–but that is several books ago now, and I am typing this in the middle of the night.  Insomnia is only bad if it it looms over you as an everyday fear.  I have it so rarely, it doesn’t bother me.  It helps that mine isn’t the awful “can’t get to sleep” kind, only the “eyes pop open at three in the morning” kind.  I used to lie staring into the dark for four hours when this happened, but this time I was smart.

What can I say about Graceling?  I waited for this book so long on the library queue, I kind of expected a let-down.  But it was really good.  I had some issues with the diction and rhythms, but I think that is just Cashore’s natural voice.  She isn’t tone deaf, her style just isn’t an English Folk Song.  There’s a bit of intentional dissonance.  What I would call verbal anachronisms, if she were going for that Renaissance Faire atmosphere.

I could tell you it is about a teenaged female assassin/warrior in a European-themed fantasy kingdom.  Katsa gets her powers through the delightful expedient of being “graced”–i.e. she doesn’t have to go through any rigorous, all-consuming martial arts training in order to be able to kill and/or disable crowds of strong men with little more than a few kicks and maybe a flick of her hair (though she does train, for fun), she can just do it.  Magically.  Because she has one blue eye and one green.  That’s how you know someone is “graced”  Other than not needing to train to get her magical fighting skills, she is basically a ninja in a dress.

She’s also a princess (though not a royal princess), and therefore the tool of her uncle, which she hates.  She’s not a killer or a torturer at heart.  She’s a Robin Hood.  She’s started a secret Robin Hoody organization to right injustices–not just in her uncle’s kingdom, but in the others, too.

The book isn’t about the Robin Hood stuff.  That’s just background, although it is a great device for explaining the pitfalls in autocratic forms of government, which is an interestingly handled theme throughout the book.  No, after the first section, in which the relevant man-boy shows up (he’s also “graced”) and gets to know Katsa, it a traditional survival trek fantasy, with a quest.

This makes it sound dumb.  It’s not!  I have a special admiration for stories that bring new life to old plots by populating them with rounded characters.  Judging by most first novels, it’s much easier to come up with an edgy concept and kill it dead in the telling.

Katsa’s tough-mindedness really stood out.  I loved it that she didn’t pull the “oh, love is the only thing that matters, I’ll never leave you” stunt, only to be tricked, cajoled, or bodily wrestled to safety, like most heroines.  Certain things do matter more than love, even in YA fantasy novels.  Katsa was true to her character to recognize it.  Cashore was true to herself for making her so.

And Katsa is the first girl I’ve ever seen in a YA novel who has decided that she does not wish to have children, and we are actually meant to believe her.  Are there others?  If so, tell me about them!  When girls in books say they don’t intend to be mothers, it’s never framed as self-knowledge.  Of course it can only be a temporary aversion to a stage of life they’re not ready for.  Adolescent hyperbole.  Sometimes a reflection of mental instability.

Intentional childlessness almost never comes up in adult novels, either.  Not explicitly.  For gay characters the issue is portrayed as one of many coming-out hurdles.  Once they’re out, friends and relatives stop assuming they are just being poky about settling down and starting a family.

Heterosexuals who decide not to have children are invisible.   This is true both in fiction and in life.  No wonder.  Why look for trouble?  The choice can be a minefield of social discomfort and misunderstanding.  Partly this is because people are much more familiar with childlessness as a result of infertility.  The deep grief this problem brings with it can make intentional childlessness feel like a slap in the face to those who long for a child.  It can erode a friendship even when both parties have the best intentions and are being terribly nice.

Aside from not wanting to go around unsuspectingly slapping people in the face, there are a lot of good reasons for the childless by choice to take the same option open to infertile couples, and simply decide to be private.  When most people hear the words, “We’ve / I’ve decided not to have children,” the words they really hear are:  “I’m emotionally damaged.  I hate kids.”

Adults deal with this the best they can.  There are helpful books.  The real shame is that, like Katsa with her deadly Grace, girls who truly know they are not interested in motherhood are left to assume they are monsters.

Po tilted his head at her.  “Do you dislike children?”

“I’ve never disliked the children I’ve met.  I’ve just never wanted them.  I haven’t wanted to mother them.  I can’t explain it.”

Katsa is an especially welcome role model because she does like kids.  Her relationship with the ten-year-old princess was great: a strong young woman and a strong young girl.  Although she is certainly emotionally damaged, I didn’t get the feeling her wish not to have children was a reflection of that.  Rather, it was the result of taking a look at who she was and what she wanted in life, and that is a good thing for teenagers to be doing.  I was convinced her preference was a forward-looking one that went along with her Robin Hooding and her will to make a place for herself in the world, not her regrets about her past.  Or maybe I am wrong: Cashore is going to take it all back, and Katsa will end up with a passel o’ young ‘uns that she secretly wanted.

Although I can identify less with Katsa’s views on marriage, those are interesting too:

[Spoiler Alert]

Alone in the forest, Katsa sat on a stump and cried.  She cried like a person whose heart is broken and wondered how, when two people loved each other, there could be such a broken heart.

She couldn’t have him, and there was no mistaking it.  She could never be his wife.  She would not steal herself back from Randa [her uncle] only to give herself away again–belong to another person, be answerable to another person, build her very being around another person.  No matter how she loved him.


What was the difference between a husband and a lover?  If she took Po as her husband, she would be making promises about a  future she couldn’t yet see.  For once she became his wife, she would be his wife forever.  And no matter how much freedom Po gave her, she would always know that it was a gift.  Her freedom would not be her own; it would be Po’s to give or withold.  That he never would withhold it made no difference.  If it did not come from her, it was not really hers.  If Po were her lover, would she still feel captured, cornered into a sense of forever?  Or would she still have the freedom that sprang from herself?

[End Spoiler]

Hm.  “Steal herself back,”  “give herself away,” “belong to another person.”  For Katsa, committed love seems to carry the danger of being owned.  I am married.  I like it.  I have never thought of it that way.  Maybe she is not such a good role model in the “nature of relationships” department.  She’s insisting on an an oddly passive, static definition of marriage for such an independent young woman.

I am also pretty disturbed  that she rates her freedom as something that it is in someone else’s power to withhold.  But I think it is awesome (and kind of cute, really) that she is is agonizing about these things before anything at all–ahem!–happens.  It is good to see characters making decisions about love for a change, instead of approaching it with an ideal of being swept away.

Which reminds me of something else.  Even though it’s distracting, I can’t help giving an amused mental cheer whenever a YA novel stops in the middle of getting all hot and bothered to make a nerdy point of mentioning birth control.  How do you feel about that?  Do you think it’s just annoying?

One thing that defintely annoys me is how every traditional YA fantasy world that addresses such things seems to have some common leaf to chew or some berry to eat that infallibly prevents conception, with no side effects. Credulity is strained.  If only it had ever been that easy on this planet.

Another minor annoyance: I guessed the result of the Prince Po’s fall at the earliest possible moment.  Earlier than was intended.  The irony it promised with his particular Grace was just too shiny for an author to resist, and too obvious for a jaded reader of YA fantasy not to see coming.


9 Responses to “Graceling by Kristen Cashore”

  1. Jenny said

    This heroine doesn’t want children? Yay for her! I mean I don’t have anything against children, but with all this team-this team-that stuff for The Hunger Games, I sort of want Katniss to stay single. (I like Peeta though. If I had to choose.) She says she never wants to get married and have kids, and I think she should stick to it, like Queen Elizabeth.

    I have this on hold at the library. I’m number 15 in the queue now, I think.

    • trapunto said

      You may get there faster than you think, if the typical library patron gobbles it as fast as I did!

      You know, I didn’t even think of Katniss, and we are even a couple of discs into Catching Fire right now. I think she may not have come to mind because she is always dwelling on the horrible situation she would be bringing a child into, with the Reaping. Like life in the districts was just too dangerous and depressing. That kind of existential “no” is a also a believable reason not to have kids, but maybe a bit more suceptible to revision.

      As for Peeta . . . I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, there is more of Gale in Catching Fire. Der Mann and I were pausing the disc to exchange predictions of which boy would get her and which would die a tragic, sacrificial death, based on what they were doing and saying. Not that I know whether both or neither of them gets Katniss, or dies, that’s just my prediction.

  2. Aarti said

    I read this earlier this year and I really appreciate your take on the story. I enjoyed the story, but it was a bit of a letdown for me. I agree with you on Katsa- she is a strong female character and I found her very believable. I thought the troubles she grappled with were very real and true to what a lot of women in their 20s go through today.

    I didn’t even notice the YA-birth control thing! Now I’m giggling 🙂 I’ll notice it all the time now going forward, I feel!

    I am glad I read this thorough review, as it reminded me of all I liked about the book, even though it ultimately didn’t live up to the hype for me. I am going to hold off on reading Fire because I want the hype in my head to die down before I read it. Or… maybe I’ll read it sooner than I should 🙂

    • trapunto said

      What part was the let-down for you? I just got in the queue for Fire. I’m purposely not seeking out any reviews in the mean time, so I can come to it fresh as a spring lamb. Or it can come to *me* fresh as a spring lamb. Heh, heh, heh. (evil laugh)

  3. Fyrefly said

    I’m trying to think of other fantasy heroines who definitely don’t want children, and I’m coming up short. Maybe Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s books? …at least for a while, although even she does wind up with kids eventually. Katsa’s (unique) attitude is part of why I liked Graceling so much.

    I think you’ll like Fire. The heroine is another woman who is not particularly interested in marriage, and who does not want children, albeit for very different reasons than Katsa.

    • trapunto said

      I’ve only read one Tamora Pierce. I think I discovered her too late in life. I’m looking forward to Fire, though! I don’t know anything about it, but it’s in my library queue.

  4. Nymeth said

    The birth control thing made me smile. I agree that it seems a little too convenient that there just happens to be a PERFECT herb in this fantasy world that does the trick, but at the same time I love that it was included. It’s time that teens begin to realise that worrying about birth control doesn’t “break the flow” or any such other silly thing. Smart fictional characters do it, and smart people do it too.

    …having said all this, I can’t believe I haven’t read this book yet 😛

    • trapunto said

      I’ll look forward to your review when you do!

      You know, I’ve been trying to figure out why I find a pause to discuss “protection” distracting in a YA love scene, even though I like it. I think that what happens is, when the scene is of teenagers, written for teenagers, it makes everything a bit awkwardly graphic. The distraction is not the “protection” but the authorial lifting of the modesty veil. I remember how I would have felt about it when I was a teen: “Sheesh. OKAY! I KNOW!”–the same way I feel now about authors who take you into the bathroom with a character, sit you down on the pot with them, and insist on telling you what happens there!

  5. Jeanne said

    I find that it’s sometimes good to be awkwardly graphic with teenagers–they remember it–and it’s always good to walk them through a process until it becomes second nature to do things in that order. Having said that, though, I don’t think fiction always has to teach…

    Another cheer for your noting of how easy it is to chew a root and prevent conception in some of these pre-industrial fantasy worlds.

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