Review: Graceling, by Kristin Cashore


(Gollancz, 978-0-575-08450-6)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, August 2008)

Kristin Cashore is an American writer who now lives in Florida, though she’s done time in Italy, New York, London and Sydney among other places. Graceling is her debut novel.

I’ll say at the outset that I don’t read much YA fantasy, the category into which Graceling falls, and therefore my comments may be somewhat more ill-informed than usual. I’ll also say that, for what it’s worth, I enjoyed this book.

Katsa, the Graceling of the title, is the enforcer of King Randa’s punitive judgements. In a world where those Graced with extraordinary talents are also marked by eyes of mismatched coloration, it appears that orphaned Katsa’s talent is as a fighter and killer without parallel. Unarmed, she’s easily capable of besting in combat a dozen armoured, sword-wielding combatants; equip her with weapons – sword, daggers, and bow and arrows – and she becomes yet more formidable. But Katsa has grown tired of exacting Randa’s unwarranted and heavy-handed punishments on his people, and she has taken steps to establish an underground movement, the Council, seeking to work behind the scenes to subvert the ill-thought policies of Randa and the kings and lords of the neighbouring six kingdoms. But it becomes apparent that, besides the Council, there are also others who are acting in a clandestine manner, and their motives appear to be distinctly less than noble. Things start to run out of control when Katsa and her trusted accomplices rescue the kidnapped grandfather of the mysterious prince Po; and Katsa, who since childhood has been forced to rely on her Grace for her own survival, is ultimately placed in a situation and facing an adversary against which all her vaunted skill at combat is of no avail.

Cashore writes in a reasonably plain fashion, without recourse to substantial detail of description. Motivations are presented with honesty and clarity, in a style that’s engaging and easy to read. It’s not without some shortcomings – some of the characters’ names, and more the countries’ names, struck me as a little silly. (It’s hard to take seriously a kingdom called the Middluns, surrounded as it is by the kingdoms of Nander, Sunder, Estill and Wester – no prizes offered for guessing their respective directions.) There were also some patches of implausibility for me, in some of the writing – my mind’s eye was unconvinced that certain events merited translation from string of text to mental image – but overall the story transcended these problems.

Cashore’s characterisation is quite black-and-white: there’s not a lot of ambivalence to her heroes, heroines, or villains, though all of them (thankfully) exhibit weaknesses as well as strengths. The book’s focus is on Katsa, who emerges as a troubled, sympathetic, and complicated character in her own right. Several members of the supporting cast – Po, Raffin, Giddon, Bitterblue, and Faun, are also drawn in sufficient detail to obtain three-dimensionality. And Katsa’s plight is genuinely engrossing, particularly throughout the book’s latter sections. Effective, too, is Cashore’s treatment of the paranormal abilities of Katsa’s Graced opponents.

Graceling is a slow burn – it starts out in a superficially gripping fashion, and then takes its time with scene-setting and the surreptitious establishment of the book’s ultimate themes and propulsive devices. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as unputdownable, but it certainly becomes compelling. There’s a sense of honesty and immediacy to it, which I think younger readers in particular will appreciate. I’d say it has what’s needed to make its mark in the increasingly crowded domain of heroic fantasy.

And it’s refreshing to encounter a fantasy in which magic as a concept is almost completely absent. The only magical aspect here is in the Graced abilities of some of the characters. (To paraphrase a recently-deceased writer of some note in the spec-fic sphere, any sufficiently extraordinary ability is indistinguishable from magic…)

Finally, for those of its readers who mourn its ending (which will, I think, be a large fraction), there are indications that Cashore intends to tell further aspects of Katsa’s story in subsequent volumes.


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