Graceling (Kristin Cashore)
For readers 13 years and up
“Katsa sat in the darkness of the Sunderan forest and understood three truths. She loved Po. She wanted Po. And she could never be anyone’s but her own.“*
“She didn’t know what would happen because of this. But she knew that today, she would hurt no one. She threw back her blankets and thought only of today.”
Tamora Pierce gives Kristin Cashore’s Graceling a sparkling promotion on the back the hardcover edition—Pierce’s recommendation was enough to get me started, and Cashore’s writing kept me going. Graceling was fun and engaging, with a diverse cast of characters, and writing that shows a deft hand for weaving plot threads. Cashore builds an interesting heroine: Katsa, the niece of a king, with a supernatural gift for fighting—one that her uncle exploits, using her as to strong-arm his subjects, even requiring her to kill for him. Katsa does this for many years, but eventually begins to subvert him by coordinating a secret council—to which anyone may come for her help. It’s through her work here that she rescues an old man, and meets the man’s grandson, Po, with whom she tries to solve the mystery of who kidnapped him, and why.
I was very fond of Katsa, and found her quite well-developed as a character. My heart, though, belongs to Bitterblue, the ten-year-old princess Katsa rescues. (That’s right, folks—The princess rescues the princess.) What a fascinating character! Manipulated by her violent father (who has the supernatural power to make anyone believe anything he says), Bitterblue is understandably traumatized—But she’s also cold and clear-thinking, sure of herself (she learns to ignore her father’s lies), and believably courageous.*** She also takes the throne at the age of ten. So rad!
Though I don’t want to ramble, there are several different elements in the story that I want to touch on:
1. Katsa doesn’t want to get married. Also, she saves the princess.
The point here isn’t to rag on marriage, but to celebrate that Katsa has an opinion, it’s hers, she’s thought it out, and the man she eventually ends up in a relationship with doesn’t try to bully her out of it. (Dialogue, friends—It works, and then everybody wins.) The back-of-the-book blurb rattles on about “a heart-racing romance that will consume you.” Not really—It’s just two classy folks being classy, and that’s the way I like it.
2. The villain of the piece is the man believed to be one of the nicest kings around. His trick is his ability to make others believe anything he says, and for still others to believe anything his listeners repeat. There’s a lot of different ways to “read” that power. What could it mean? What, in our lives, in different people’s lives, could that correlate to? At the risk of frightening you off with some Symbolism, it makes me think of patriarchy, of an oppressive system that tells us lies so well that we would never, ever, ever doubt them. (For example: You need to lose weight, Girls aren’t good at math, You need to shave, Blondes are stupid, Girls don’t belong in public office, You should be quiet when men are talking, You can’t make a difference—All that garbage!)
The plot is complicated by a dark twist: King Leck is a sadist and a sexual predator. This is dark, dark stuff—This character is beyond cardboard villainy. It’s all the more important, I think, that Katsa and Bitterblue (and Po, too, yes) are the ones to defeat him.
3. “Ability” and accepting who you are
Both Katsa and Po are strongest when the embrace the “Graceling” traits that they were born with, even when those same traits alienate them from most of the rest of a fearful population. Katsa realizes the true nature of her “Grace” while Po accepts and embraces his blindess.
(I recognize that I’m not fully qualified to talk about ability/disability—If you want to add to the discussion, email specialgirlsbooks[at]gmail.com or leave a comment.)
* Does this quote remind you of anything? A certain wildly popular novel, perhaps? I can’t help but wonder if Cashore is intentionally playing off the connection.
** Graceling reminded me a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Gifts, in which which some children are born with different supernatural powers, from the power to start fires to the power to kill with a look.
*** I’ve just learned that Cashore has recently published a sequel, titled Bitterblue. I’m often wary of sequels, but concede that I’m rather excited for this one. (The cover has three keys on it, which makes me think of Bluebeard—Maybe I’m way off the mark there, but who knows?)
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