Aside from having fabulous covers, there are many reasons that I am a fan of Kristin Cashore’s debut novel. First and foremost, Katsa is a kick-ass (literally) female protagonist. Born a Graceling (one who possesses preternatural talents or skills), she has been used by King Randa, since her Grace first revealed itself at age 8, to carry out violent acts on his behalf (her Grace is believed to be a killing Grace). As she grows older, her conscience gets to her and she forms a secret council to work against the “mindlessness of the kings”. On one of the Council’s missions she meets another Graceling, a young man named Po, a mission and meeting which set the action of the book in motion.
I started listening to this story on audiobook because I had heard rave reviews of the recording (I enjoyed it though some of the performances for the smaller roles did not work for me). Cashore does a wonderful job creating this world for the reader but I kept trying to picture the lands in relation to the real world map and felt the need for a visual “reality check”. Eventually, I decided to check out the book because, as in most good fantasy, I knew that there would be a map contained within. Seeing the layout of the land helped me to have a better sense of their journey.
I appreciate the story’s commentary on patriarchal domination. After being “owned and operated” by King Randa for most of her life and being forced to commit murder or torture in his name, Katsa decides that she will never be owned by anyone again and for her this includes marriage. As she falls for Po, she contemplates love and partnership and what it would mean for them to not marry. She also discusses with Po her use of birth control (a flower called seabane) to avoid motherhood, something she has no interest in. Part of why Katsa and Po work is that he doesn’t mind her superiority. As he says at one point along their journey,
“You’re better than I am, Katsa. And it doesn’t humiliate me.” He fed a branch to the fire. “It humbles me. But it doesn’t humiliate me.”
I couldn’t help but think of my favorite super hero(ine) of all time, Buffy Summers, while reading. This is not only because both women are skilled fighters whose powers at times make them feel alone in the world (and make dating a real challenge), but also because the fighting/training scenes between her and Po are so reminiscent of training scenes with Buffy and Riley (a mix of tough and focused fighting with a bit of sex and romance). The Graces also bring to mind super powers or mutations in popular media (especially X-Men) – the Graces have such range from ones that help predict the coming harvest to mind readers to invincible fighters (I couldn’t help thinking of Moist from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog whose special ability is basically that he can make things, well, moist – some people just don’t luck out when it comes to super powers). I personally think the best Grace is the one that makes you an amazing cook (that actually exists in this story).
I am excited to read more from Cashore and as much as I want more stories of Katsa, I think the author is smart to go where her imagination takes her rather than to simply continue the character’s story.
I really don’t know what is wrong with me. Obviously Graceling is a great book, Katsa is great, I can see why everyone loves everything about the novel. I just couldn’t finish it. I had about 75 pages left, and returned it to the library. Maybe it just wasn’t dystopian enough? Too high fantasy? Maybe too much Twilight destroyed my brain?