I recently reread Graceling by Kristin Cashore. I’m still not really sure how I feel about this book. I don’t regret reading it, but it’s never as satisfying a story as I wish it was. And there are several bits of the story that just rub me the wrong way.
Katsa is the niece of King Randa of the Middluns. She also has eyes that are two different colors, one green, one blue. This trait marks Katsa automatically as Graced, someone born with an exceptional skill. Sometimes the skill is good vision, or strength, or swimming. But Katsa’s Grace is killing which makes her particularly dangerous and extremely valuable for her uncle the king. She has trained herself to control her Grace making her one of the most dangerous people in all of the seven kingdoms. But Katsa is not happy being her uncle’s thug and has secretly created the Council with her cousin (the heir to the throne) and various other nobles. The Council intends to improve conditions in the seven kingdoms for people in an attempt to curb the abuses and inconsistencies that have been thrust on people by a series of weak and/or indifferent kings in all of the kingdoms.
It is on one mission for the Council that Katsa rescues the father of the Lienid king and father also to the Queen of Monsea, a kingdom known for its wise and kind ruler, Leck. Katsa brings the old man back to the Middluns court for safety and healing and to attempt to find out why the man was kidnapped in the first place. The old man’s grandson and the youngest of the Lienid Princes, Po, shows up and becomes Katsa’s friend and travel partner as they attempt to find the truth behind the kidnapping and discover that King Leck is not what he seems.
It was an interesting story, and it was cool to see Katsa grow out of her belief that she’s not just Randa’s personal killer. Po actually points out that Katsa’s Grace might not even be what she has always thought it is and events in the story prove that he is correct.
The problems I have with Graceling revolve mainly around Katsa herself. Yes, she’s a fighter and Cashore goes to great lengths to prove that Katsa is strong and very stereotypically tomboy-ish. Hence, no dresses, her hair is always a mess, and she takes no interest in looking nice or in getting married. There is nothing wrong with those things but, honestly, we get it. Katsa is a Strong Female Character for sure. Another thing that bothered me is the very modern view of marriage/childbirth that Katsa has. The story is set in a group of kingdoms that seem to have fairly traditional views of marriage (man head of the family, wife a helper to cook, clean, raise children, etc.), yet Katsa has no interest in getting married or having children because she doesn’t want to be tied to anyone. Which is a reason so breathtakingly selfish that I have problems liking Katsa at all. Especially since she eventually takes Po as a lover and routinely eats some herb that acts as a birth control. Granted, my views as a Christian are conservative and traditional, but I fail too see why Cashore felt the need to make Katsa so out of place in that way. Was it just another way to show how isolated Katsa was from the culture and society around her? I don’t know, but it just seemed like such an unnecessary character trait.
Cashore has written two companion books to Graceling. One, Fire, looks at the origins of the villain Leck through the eyes of a young noblewoman Fire. The other book, Bitterblue, was just published recently as a sequel to Graceling. I have read Fire and liked it a little better than Graceling but there was still a lot in it that bothered me, just like Graceling. I plan to read Bitterblue when I can, although I imagine I’ll end up with the same conflicted feelings about it, same as the other two.