You know that simultaneously happy and sad feeling you get when you finish a truly good book? That’s exactly what I felt when I at last put down Kristin Cashore’s novel, Graceling. While I’ve read plenty of girl-is-really-really-really-like-magically-good-at-fighting books, I have honestly never read anything quite as ingenious and unique as this story.
In the Seven Kingdoms, there are those who are Graced – bearing a singular supernatural talent that could be for climbing trees, cooking, or reading minds. Katsa, a minor princess of the Middluns, killed a man with her hand when she was eight. Because of her Grace, she has become the King’s assassin and enforcer, while struggling to secretly undo the damage of kingly caprice. That is, until she meets a foreign prince with a Grace to nearly match her own, and the plots of kings and countries force Katsa to not only take charge of her life, but to set out on a voyage across the Seven Kingdoms that will threaten her self-knowledge, her Grace, and her life.
Katsa is a powerful character in the literal sense: because of her Grace, she can’t even be beaten by a troop of armed knights and archers. But also because of her Grace, she begins as a weak character, ashamed of her violent Grace and controlled by a vindictive king. Throughout the course of the story, she comes into contact with her self-worth in an increasing number of challenging ways. Take, for example this passage from about a quarter of the way into the book:
[Katsa] knew her nature. She would recognize it if she came face-to-face with it. It would be a blue-eyed, green-eyed monster, wolflike and snarling. A vicious beast that struck out at friends in uncontrollable anger, a killer that offered itself as the vessel of the king’s fury.
But then, it was a strange monster, for beneath its exterior it was frightened and sickened by its own violence. It chastised itself for its savagery. And sometimes it had no heart for violence and rebelled against it utterly.
A monster that refused, sometimes, to behave like a monster. When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?
Perhaps she wouldn’t recognize her own nature after all.
Fear of her own strength and anger is all tied up with her own moral certitude, but she slowly comes to realize that her Grace is not actually what she has been so convinced of all these years. (Was that vague enough for you? Sorry.) She avoids the annoying WW status of either being totally at peace with it, or facetiously upset about it, and instead battles to a place where she doesn’t have to balance her disgust and her joy.
The book is tripartite – the first part sets the stage and Katsa eventually on her path, the second part is self-discovery and reclamation, and the third is all action – at least this is how it seems to me. Each part has a big revelation/twist and a twist/climax so there’s never a dull predictable moment. Even when I, in my exalted reviewer status, thought I saw a plot device coming, I was undermined. At last!
A genuinely interesting and enchanting book, very refreshing to read something so original and well-written! Needless to say, Graceling rates an AJ on the PSA. One prequel (though written later) published, Fire, and a sequel, Bitterblue, in the works. Thoughts on Fire coming soon, as it is on hold for me at this very moment!