Sunday, March 16, 2014

Book Review: Graceling

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Genre: Fantasy (Sword and Sorcery), YA


Within the Seven Kingdoms, children whose eyes turn dual colors are marked as having a Grace, an incredible talent eagerly sought by ambitious kings.  At age 8, Katsa, with one eye green as the grasses and one eye blue as the sky, slapped a man and shattered his skull, forever marking her as a Killer.  Her uncle, the King of Middluns, has spent the years since refining her into his own personal weapon.  It's a role that Katsa has only recently begun to chafe against.  In broad daylight she enforces her uncle's tyrannical will, but in the secret of the night she carries out rescue missions.

It's on one such mission to free a kidnapped prince that Katsa encounters another Graceling, a fighter named Po, with one eye silver and one eye gold.  He says he trusts her.  But should she trust him?  For Po has a way of getting under Katsa's skin, making her question who she is and what she's capable of becoming.  As they work together to unravel the mystery behind the kidnapping, Katsa soon learns that Po has secrets of his own....


This is the kind of good, solid fantasy I love to read: equal parts outward quest and inward journey.  I have to admit, though, when I saw Graceling on a table at Barnes and Noble, I was initially wary.  Clear-cut sword and sorcery fantasy is incredibly easy to botch.  I should know; I've read my share of botched fantasy.  But this book was good.  I read all 471 pages in less than 24 hours.

I really appreciated the morality of the heroes and the warmth of their relationships.  Since Katsa's originally presented as a killer, I was prepared for angst, guilt, and cynicism.  Actually, I found her genuinely heroic and relatable.  She refuses to kill unless its necessary.  She has a bit of a temper but doesn't let it control her.  The few times she does lash out in anger, she regrets it.  I find this a refreshing departure from the typical fantasy hero, usually a bundle of moods, whose anger is presented as an asset rather than a liability.

Katsa's internal change marks the first of three main plot threads in Graceling.  Po--and Katsa's relationship to him--marks the second.  The third plot thread is the kidnapping of the prince and how it reveals a growing threat from a far-off kingdom.  These three plots are braided together expertly, so that whenever one seems to come to a conclusion, the other two pick up the slack.  There's always something to make the reader wonder, always some reason to continue reading.

Could I nitpick about the book's flaws?  Sure.  I find Katsa's Grace a bit too powerful and all-encompassing for my taste.  During one point in the romantic arc, Katsa goes from mostly stoic to moody so abruptly I wondered if she'd fallen into an enchantment.  The ending lingered past the villian's defeat, neither concluding the story nor setting up a sequel.

But on the whole, I found Graceling immensely satisfying, with plenty of fun and magic, emotion and adventure.  Ms. Cashore has written a classic fantasy without succumbing to its cliches.  That's no easy balance to achieve.  I heartily recommend Graceling to anyone looking for an adventurous fix.

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