Harcourt Children’s, 2008
Kristin Cashore’s Graceling is a novel that I’ve put off for years for no real reason. Bursting onto the scene in 2008 Graceling swept up a number of awards and nominations in Young Adult and Children’s categories including the Mythopoeic and was listed as one School Library Jounral’s Best Books of the Year. Graceling tells the story of Katsa who lives in a world where certain individuals are gifted with graces; extraordinary magical abilities that make those individuals well suited for a particular task. Katsa’s gift as a graceling is that of killing. Since a young age she has been trained and raised by her uncle to serve as his personal assassin and strongarm; eliminating rivals and threating his vassals should they step out of line. Along with some friends she has formed a group that looks to counterbalance her thuggish work. It is in the pursuit of this group’s aims that she finds herself drawn into the orbit of Prince Po, also graced with extraordinary combat skills, and sent on a journey of discovery that will unveil secrets of her own personality and will reveal the terrible truth behind a distant land.
Graceling is, besides an exciting fantasy adventure, a novel about the burgeoning of womanhood, the exploration of femininity, and the examination of gender roles. Cashore does a wonderful job of thrusting Katsa into the role of outsider. Shunned by the courts because of her reputation and forced into a role typically reserved for men it has made here both extraordinarily uncomfortable and nigh clueless when it comes being a girl and dealing with non-violent social situation. To make matters worse the fear and distrust engendered by her reputation has made it so that she is almost complete oblivious when it comes to matters of the heart.
As is the tradition in a novel such as this Katsa’s world view and position is turned around by the introduction of Prince Po. His introduction serves to shake up her world and challenger he views of both it and herself. There is a bit of Katsa’s sexual awakening in here. A mostly PG-13 affair but one that is handled delicately and with maturity. That isn’t to say I don’t have some issues with this part of the novel. It isn’t really Cashore’s fault, in fact she does quite wonderfully and crafting an independent and confident character in Katsa. Her confidence all things other than love is understandable. That said there is a part of me that would loved to have seen a more universally confident Katsa; willing to go after what she wants regardless of consequences or societal constraints. We do start to see this version of Katsa, a Katsa who is a more complete person, towards the end of the novel.
Graceling is very much a character driven novel. Cashore only draws enough the world so that we understand how the characters fit into it and how has effected their lives. This works surprisingly well here with Katsa’s experience revealing the darker aspect of the world’s treatment of Gracelings while at the same time hinting at how the unfettering of these individuals might be a benefit of all. The central mystery of the story serves to help enhance the vastness of the world and is tied strongly into the difficulties in communication amongst the disparate lands. Readers never get a complete sense of the world as Cashore stays firmly locked into Katsa’s plight but in rare moments Cashore shows she has a deft hand in crafting an environment; particularly in Katsa and Po’s mountain journey.
By and large Graceling is a confident and engaging novel that while directed at the young adult crowd has definite broader appeal to adult audiences. While the romance between Po and Katsa slides a bit towards the traditional in the way it unfolds there are definite unique touches by Cashore that manage to keep it original. While part of a series Graceling stands apart as complete tale and the subsequent volume, Fire, is more of an unrelated companion piece. Graceling is more directly followed by Bitterblue released in May 2012. Readers looking for a quality example of young about fiction should definitely give Graceling a shot.