I devoured this book in less than 24 hours during exams and really loved entering the realm of the Seven Kingdoms that author Kristin Cashore has created.
Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.
She never expects to fall in love with beautiful Prince Po.
She never expects to learn the truth behind her Grace—or the terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.
From the publisher, Harcourt Children’s Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin.
Cashore paints a medieval-fantasy world called the Seven Kingdoms, in which there are people born with hidden talents called Graces. Most of the kingdoms revere yet fear the Graced, because of their unpredictable abilities. When a child shows they are Graced (by ones eyes changing to two different colours) they are sent to the Court to be raised in the Royal household. Once they discover what their Grace is, they are at the disposal/use of the Ruler (or are sent home for having a silly talent like being able to hold your breath underwater for 8 minutes).
Katsa, because she was already the niece of the King, was living with her parents until they were killed, then went to live her Uncle and cousin, heir to the throne. When they figured out her Grace was for killing, and she had no parent or guardian to advocate for her welfare, she was used as the King’s strongarm.
Graceling begins with Katsa rescuing an elderly man from one of the other kingdoms. We soon discover that she despises being the “Lady Killer” for the King and has sent up a secret council with her cousin to use her Grace for good deeds. During the rescue, she encounters another Graced fighter, who tracks her back to her home kingdom. His name is Po, a Prince of another Kingdom, and he is searching for his kidnapped grandfather.
ENTER SPOILER TERRITORY
As Po, Katsa, and her cousin Raffin become friends, Po and Katsa come to care for each other. Po is wise and knowledgeable about his own abilities, beliefs, and opinions. Katsa still feels young and a bit confused. Even though she grew up in a screwed-up position, she isn’t completely broken, just self-loathing. We already have evidence (pre-novel) about how Katsa wants to do good deeds through the Council, and thus she isn’t just a cold-hearted killer. The true challenge is having the character realize what the readers (and other characters) see. I like that the beginning of the book was already into some of the meat of the book: the Council existed and was carrying out missions, Katsa and Raffin have grown up together and have a strong bond, and Lord Giddon is in love with Katsa.
I found Katsa refreshing in a number of ways: she chops off all her hair because it gets tangled and in her way; she doesn’t want to get married, and even when starts to fall in love she sticks to her beliefs; and she doesn’t represent a traditional female role. However, sometimes this distaste for the traditional female role backfired and made Katsa seem callous or uncaring. Thinking about it further, perhaps this was intended to show that she didn’t have any role models for how to be a female who isn’t completely dependent on the males in her life.
Po encourages Katsa to stand up to her Uncle, and then they leave the Kingdom to find out who took Po’s grandfather and why. As they travel through the Kingdoms, Katsa discovers more about her Grace and her feelings for Po. Of course, there is a romance, but I really appreciated that Katsa didn’t just throw her beliefs/values out. She was upfront about not wanting marriage or kids, and he simply said he’d have her any way she’d take him (which sounds dirtier than it is intended). Basically if she just wanted a friends-with-benefits situation, he’d be happy for that much.
So yep, they start the Romance side of the story, but fortunately it didn’t completely overtake the Quest side of the novel. Although, the novel would have worked perfectly well if the Romance didn’t even happen. Everything that they did for each other are perfectly reasonable things for best friends (except the hooking up) and I think the book would have been fine without the Romance. Despite that, I did like that in the end they didn’t feel the need to end up together, at the alter, happily ever after.
Although we found out who took the grandfather and generally why, there was no real back story provided for the villain. There are only rumours about how Leck tortures/kills animals and children (and possibly more if they’re girls) mixed with the other “good” tales that are repeated throughout the realm. These are tropes which instantly set Leck up in “The Evil Villain” role and Cashore doesn’t delve explore the character any further in Graceling. Leck’s background is left for another book (Fire), which was frustrating but understandable due to space/time.
The part of the story I didn’t enjoy was near the end, after they return to the cabin to find Po. I liked that the dynamic changed, but I really didn’t feel that extending the relationship of Katsa and Po was entirely necessary. Their initial lust was well-matched on the battlefield, and he clearly cherished her, but I felt that she was sort of indifferent toward him. Perhaps it was her feminist ideals at odds with her feelings of love and caring (although these two things don’t have to be at odds, Katsa just didn’t know how to manage them).
END OF SPOILERS
The story was captivating, and I compulsively read the entire novel in less than 24 hours. I really appreciated a strong female protagonist, and I actually liked the fact that she had flaws. I think this is more realistic and believable, and no less admirable.
I was really glad to hear there are no exact sequels, but there are two other companion books that take place in the same realm of the Seven Kingdoms: Fire (published in 2009) takes place 30 years before Graceling (published in 2008) and has one crossover character, and Bitterblue (published in 2012) takes places several years after Graceling and includes Katsa and Po as secondary characters. I think this was a smart choice on Cashore’s part. [Aside: I actually miss having stand-alone books—why does everything have to be part of an on-going series?] The story of Katsa (and Po) is basically resolved at the end of Graceling, and drawing their story into another book wouldn’t benefit the characters or the author in my opinion.