Kristin Cashore’s young adult fantasy novel Graceling delivers, with a determined heroine whose fierceness is both alluring and intimidating. Graceling’s heroine Katsa lives in a land of Seven Kingdoms competing for power. Cashore creates a stunning world, in which each of the Kingdoms breathes its own unique personality. One of the things readers will love about this book is discovering the climates and attitudes of all the different Kingdoms. Each one has distinct and remarkable features; there’s a vastly diverse backdrop of mountains, sea and forest. With Katsa’s journey (because there is, of course, an epic journey), we not only see her inner world develop as she learns and grows, but we are allowed to explore with her the Kingdoms that she is visiting for the first time.
One of the most fascinating concepts of Graceling is the Graces themselves. Not everyone in the Seven Kingdoms is Graced; children are either born normal or born with two different eye colors. The Graces, simply put, are natural abilities enhanced. They could be anything from fighting to swimming to baking. Some are seen as valuable while others are considered less useful. Children could go years before knowing what their Grace is. In Katsa’s case, she discovers her powers at the young age of eight when she accidently kills one of her step-cousins by hitting him in the face with a single blow.
Instead of being banished or killed, Katsa undergoes severe training allowing her to control her deadly combat skills. Unfortunately, her uncle, King Randa, forces her to be an assassin for Middluns, her home kingdom. In retaliation, Katsa forms a secret Council with her friends, a group that attempts to right the wrongs of the bickering kingdoms.
After disobeying King Randa’s orders, Katsa has a choice between banishment and death. She decides to go with her new friend Prince Po and try to uncover the mystery surrounding the peaceful but remote Kingdom of Monsea, separated by a tall mountain pass, where King Leck rules without war or fear.
Oh yeah, it’s also a love story.
Which is predicable in young adult fiction. But this love story has class.
Never before have I seen romance and kick-ass feminism so perfectly woven together with a thrilling suspenseful story set against a vibrant but violent world.
The romance is strong, beautiful and organic. It doesn’t matter that you see it coming from a mile off; Cashore writes it so well that it simply feels like puzzle pieces snapping together.
Of course, there is a twist. From the beginning of their relationship, Katsa’s stance on marriage and children is stern. In the society that she lives in, wives are considered property of their husbands. They are expected to bear children and entertain guests, two things Katsa knows, in her heart, she has no desire to do.
And this really does make for a braver romance. It’s a romance that girls and women of today can relate to much more than instant marriage and happiness. It gives the message that relationships don’t magically fall into place. They are spontaneous, exciting, anxiety-producing partnerships. And to be in love, to be happy, you don’t need to be married.
Young readers and fantasy lovers alike will relate to Katsa’s blunt and straightforward nature. The way she deals with being a strong, fighting girl in a sexist fantasy world is rational and logical. Cashore is able to take subject matter that is a huge concern for teenage girls and allow them to question it in a brand new setting.
All of this is woven so seamlessly within the story that it won’t bang you over the head. The adventure in the story keeps the characters strong. What I liked was that the story seemed predictable in the beginning, and while some plot points happened just the way I expected, others just kept on surprising me, keeping me biting my lip and chewing my fingernails until the very end. Always a good feeling.
I am currently reading the semi-sequel Bitterblue, the tale of Katsa’s princess friend trying to rule a broken kingdom.
You can check out Cashore’s website here.