This review is part of my awesome MARCH FANTASY MONTH project with the lovely Lili of Lili's Reflections. Click here to see Lili's review of Graceling, and follow both of us so you don't miss any of the fantasy madness!
Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Rating: WHY ON EARTH DID I WAIT SO LONG TO READ THIS?!
In a world where people born with an extreme skill—called a Grace—are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing and torturing anyone who displeases him.
When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.
She never expects to become Po's friend.
She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away...a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.
The cover: The first thing I thought when I saw that cover was YES PLEASE. I love covers that deviate from the standard "pretty girl in a pretty dress" thing. And that dagger is KICK ASS and gorgeously designed, as is the title font. And oh, yeah, the dagger is super shiny and there's a MENACING FEMALE EYE just staring at you all murderously.
The story: Okay, so obviously this book has a pretty mega reputation. It's always a nerve-wracking experience reading something so universally beloved. I'm always worried that it wouldn't live up to the enormous hype, or I'll be the one person in the whole world who just doesn't get it, which is a very lonely feeling (I have one friend who HATES the Harry Potter books. I feign complete deafness whenever the subject is raised, for both our sakes). But Graceling seriously delivered.
High fantasy books are my true reading loves, but they can also be difficult. It all comes down to world-building and strength of character. If the world-building is too dense or difficult, I really need a strong character to latch onto and guide me through. On the other hand, if I have really awesome world-building, I'll forgive somewhat weak characters. At least, for a little while. Which is why I felt so spoiled with Graceling, which not only operates in a compelling, yet easy to understand universe, but stars the coolest freaky-eyed fantasy warrior girl since Alanna the Lioness.
Katsa: I love this girl. She's a fearsome fighter and a very unique heroine. At first I thought she'd be your run of the mill "kick ass female warrior", but she's entirely herself. Katsa is not only King Randa's niece, but his most feared enforcer. She's someone who starts out so powerful and yet so powerless. She's really, really good at killing people, which means she's not so good at making friends.
|Katsa could probably kill an army with her fingernail.|
She spends the whole novel struggling with all the different facets of her identity: her humanity, the power her awful kingly uncle wields over her, the power (or lack thereof) she wields over herself and her Grace. It was really enjoyable to experience her opening up and becoming the truly self-sufficent, grrl-power lady she was meant to be. I never say no to an obviously feminist heroine, and Katsa is one of my favorites. Her character was believable, organic, and enjoyable. She's prickly, blunt, sometimes dense, impetuous, invincible, and vulnerable, all at the same time. She's loving, but guarded. Kind but vicious. She's a living, breathing character. And sometimes she's just plain cool. Seriously, her Grace is so completely awesome. Horrible, of course, but man. The things this girl can do. I need to start taking self-defense classes immediately. Despite her gruff exterior, she has deep and loyal friendships with her teacher Oll and her cousin Raffin. But the best of her is brought out by the wonderful Prince Po.
Prince Po: A Graced prince in search of his kidnapped grandfather who basically stole my heart the very instant he appeared on the page.
Seriously. I need to find myself a hot prince with one gold eye and one silver eye stat. Anybody seen one of those? No? Well, I'm holding out hope regardless. He's not just tremendous as a love interest, but as a character. He and Katsa are a brilliant team of equals, playing off each other beautifully and making my little heart flutter like mad. He made me swoon, he broke my heart, he made me fan myself and reach for the cold water (slight adult content warning, I suppose). He's so loyal and selfless and oh, God, I'm getting a little emotional here. I didn't realize how tight a hold this book had on my feels until things between Katsa and Po started developing. I was totally engrossed in the story and in Katsa, of course, but I didn't start feelings the feelings until... well.. the feelings started flowing.
The Seven Kingdoms: WORLD-BUILDING. Cashore should teach a master course in it. The information was doled out evenly and easily. I was never confused and could picture everything perfectly. I LOVED how well-defined the Lienid culture was, with their rings and tattoos and such. I loved reading about the benefits of having a Grace, but also the serious toll it can take. Gracelings are feared throughout most of the war-torn Seven Kingdoms, and when you look at a Graced killer like Katsa, you can understand why. And so can Katsa herself. The story takes its time, but it never lags or lurches. There's always forward momentum, but time to breathe as well. I read this book straight through in one (admittedly freely scheduled) day. It's practically five hundred pages, but I didn't want to stop. The writing is clear and beautiful all at once.
The villain: It's possible the identity of the Big Bad could be a spoiler, so I won't say anything besides HOLY MOTHER OF PEARL was he creepy.
A totally effective villain with a super intense villainous power, even if I did wish to know more about him in some sick, perverse way. His motives were a little foggy, but with methods were shudder-inducing.
I've got other quibbles, of course, but they're majorly minor. I wanted a bigger showdown at the end, though I understand why, logistically, it had to happen the way it happened. I also got squirmy SPOILER SPOILER about a certain character's disability towards the end, which is... unintentionally kind of a little offensive. I've read a lot of articles about Cashore's dealings with this topic, about her realization that her treatment of it was not entirely PC, and how she addressed these issues in Bitterblue for the better, to her enormous credit as an author. SPOILER OVER
Everybody who yelled at me to read this book, you were right. This is definitely a high fantasy classic, and I don't say this lightly. "Classic" is certainly a big word, and there may be people who disagree with me, but Graceling has earned a permanent place on my bookshelf. I can't WAIT to read Bitterblue. As warned, though, I am eying my copy of Fire with the greatest trepidation. Seriously, I'm worried about that one.