Background: Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, is one of my three favorite young adult fiction reads of 2008 (with The Hunger Games and The Adoration of Jenna Fox). I actually hesitated to read it at first, because I wasn't sure about starting another fantasy series. But positive reviews of Graceling were everywhere, and I found that I couldn't resist. Honestly, if you trust my judgment, you'll just take my word for it that Graceling is completely worth your time, and you won't need a review at all. And if that's not enough, Graceling is on the shortlist for the Morris Award, a new ALA award "honoring a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature." But if you need more, I'll attempt a brief review.
Review: Graceling is a young adult fantasy novel, the first of a series, set in a world in which a small percentage of people have special skills, called Graces. Unlike in other books that I've read recently (Ingrid Law's Savvy comes to mind), the Graced are easily identified, because they all have eyes of different colors (e.g. one blue eye and one brown eye). Some of the Graces revealed are minor (like talking backwards), while others are quite dangerous. As explained in Chapter Four, "in most of the kingdoms, Gracelings were given up to the king's use, by law."
The heroine of Graceling is Katsa, a teenage orphan, cursed with the ability to kill and maim people, almost without effort. Since childhood, Katsa has worked as an enforcer for her uncle, King Randa, used to kill his enemies, and send deadly messages to those who displease him. Katsa hates her job, however, and she secretly undertakes, with a few trusted advisors, missions to help people. Early in the story, she meets a young prince from another country, one also Graced as a warrior. Katsa and Po become, despite her understandable difficulty with intimacy, friends and co-adventurers. They set out on a dangerous quest, and uncover secrets about themselves and others along the way.
Graceling is an action-packed adventure, with fully realized, varied settings, and intriguing mysteries. What makes it stand out, however, are the complex characters. Katsa is a product of her isolated childhood, her terrible Grace, and her misuse by Randa. She protects herself, and lets very few people inside her circle. She is self-critical, without being perceptive of the way that others see her. She is determined never to marry or have children. Yet she is utterly loyal to her few friends, including the cousin who is like a brother to her. She grows tremendously as a character throughout the book, in large part due to her friendship with Po. She is strong and physically fearless, but also emotionally vulnerable. In short, Katsa is the ultimate cool girl of young adult literature.
Here is a passage that reveals Katsa's opinion of herself:
"She knew her nature. She wold recognize it if she came face-to-face with it. It would be a blue-eyed, green-eyed monster, wolflike and snarling. A vicious beat 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 own 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." (Page 137)
The other characters are interesting and well-rounded also, particularly Po, Katsa's cousin, and a brave young girl. There is also a truly terrifying villain, revealed mid-way through the book.
Graceling has it all: an interesting premise, an action-packed, conflict-filled plot, characters and settings that feel real, and fluid, descriptive prose. I can't wait for the second book! Highly, highly recommended for older teens and adults. I don't necessarily recommend it for middle schoolers, without a parent reading the book first, because there is quite a bit of violence, and because (albeit tastefully conveyed) Katsa does have a sexual relationship. But for those mature enough to handle these aspects of the story, Graceling is well worth reading. Don't miss it!
Publication Date: October 1, 2008
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: Too many to list, including The LiteraBuss, BookEnvy, Bookshelves of Doom, Sara's Hold Shelf, Beyond Books, emilyreads. You can find several links to other reviews at librarian by day
Author Interviews: Shelf Elf, Omnivoracious
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.