Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I’ve been hearing fabulous things about Graceling by Kristin Cashore for some time now. It consistently pops up on “favorites” lists all across the blogosphere, along with its companions, Fire and Bitterblue, which in and of itself made me curious. Add to that the fact that its YA fantasy, which is a genre I actually haven’t read much of (most of the fantasy I read is adult), and I knew I’d need to read it ASAP.

The Plot

Katsa is a Graceling, identifiable from a young age because of her two different-colored eyes. But instead of a harmless Grace, such as painting or swimming, Katsa is Graced with killing. She first killed a man with her bare hands when she was eight years old, and has since been used by her uncle the king as an assassin and thug.

However, Katsa yearns to be more than just a killer, so she joins forces with a secret Council of citizens who have banded together to seek out and stop injustice. It is on a mission for the Council that she meets Po, the prince of a neighboring kingdom, and also a Graced fighter. Katsa is wary of Po, but as they grow closer through their sparring, the two soon become friends.

Then Po requests Katsa’s help on solving the mystery of his grandfather’s kidnapping. And as Katsa and Po search for the truth, they discover a terrifying secret that could affect the future of the entire Seven Kingdoms.

My Thoughts

I can see why Graceling is so well-loved by so many people. The writing is fantastic, and the world-building exquisite. I love the idea of this fantasy world where certain people have what essentially amounts to mutant powers. The notion of the different-colored eyes marking the Graced is great, as is the exploration of how the inhabitants of the different kingdoms view the Graced. In one kingdom, the Graced are honored, where in another, they are shamed. It’s a very subtle look at prejudices and stereotypes woven throughout the plot, and how those perceptions impact an individual’s self-image, and I thought it was very well done.

The plot was also lovely. I enjoyed the action, and although I’ve read several reviews that thought the pacing was slow and the length ponderous, I thought it moved rather quickly. Maybe that’s because most of the fantasy I read is adult. This book was certainly longer than a lot of YA fare, but I thought the length was justified by the story.

Po was a fantastic character. I liked him immediately. I loved that he was nuanced and flawed, and I was surprised along with Katsa when new facts were revealed about him. There are certain parts of the book where Po is not present, and while they are extremely exciting and tense, I was still slightly distracted wishing Po was there. It’s always fun when a book makes me actually miss a character when he’s not around.

I also loved the character of Princess Bitterblue, who is the focal point of one of the companion novels. While she was a child, I admired her attitude and spunk, and I enjoyed reading about her.

I did have a few issues with the book, and these were just matters of preference, not of the storytelling or the writing. I was not a huge fan of Katsa. I understood why she was the way she was, and I definitely acknowledge that she is a far cry from many of the helpless damsels in distress that are abundant in YA literature. However, her extremely guarded and untrusting nature didn’t make her a character I really enjoyed reading about. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the story that she was involved in, I just didn’t really enjoy her. And although she does exhibit some growth during the course of the book, it wasn’t enough to make me really like her by the end.

I also was a bit let down by the climax of the book (which actually occurs several chapters before the ending). It seemed kind of lacking after so much build-up. Now, I’m not entirely sure how it could have been done better or differently; I just know that after I finished reading it, my thought was, “Oh, that was it?”

However, as an overall story, Graceling excelled. And considering neither of the companion novels focus on Katsa, I’m extremely interested in reading more about this beautiful fantasy world and the amazing characters that populate it.

Content Guide: Contains lots of fighting/violence/killing, sexual situations, implications of child and animal abuse.