October 6, 2012

Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Published: 2008, Harcourt
Series: Graceling Realm, #1
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Personal book

He was very good. But she was Katsa. 

I have no idea why I've waited so long to continue with this series. I read Graceling a few years ago at the recommendation of a friend and loved it. Then last summer I borrowed Fire from the library and tried to read it, only to realize that a reread of Graceling was necessary first. As I read Graceling for a second time, I was surprised by how little I remembered. That's one of the main reasons I started writing reviews, actually: so that when I am unable to read series right in a row (which is how I prefer to read them), I can look back at my reviews and thoughts as a way to prepare for the next book. And I am so glad that Bitterblue was released right as I started blogging, because I really needed that push to go back to the wonderful story of Graceling and then continue with the series.

In the world of the Seven Kingdoms, a child whose eyes change into two distinct colors becomes known as a Graceling. Only a small percentage of the population is Graced, possessing special innate abilities. Gracelings are both feared and respected for their abilities. Katsa is one such Graceling, the niece of King Randa of the Middluns. Her Grace gives her powerful fighting abilities, which King Randa has taken advantage of by making her into his royal thug. Katsa is not happy with her life or the state of the Seven Kingdoms in general, but since she does not know how to change her own life she makes herself content by leading the Council, an underground group that works to bring justice to the lands. But saving the former king of the country of Lienid becomes much more than a simple Council operation. No king seems to be culpable for the kidnapping, and Katsa befriends Po, the youngest prince of Lienid who is also searching for answers to his grandfather's kidnapping. Together Katsa and Po journey to discover the truth behind the kidnapping, as well as to gain a better understanding of the Seven Kingdoms and of themselves.

I enjoyed everything that had to do with the mysterious kidnapping of the royal Lienid patriarch. Unfolding the layers of deception along with Katsa and Po was just so eye-opening. And I absolutely loved the fact that Katsa and Po are clever and resourceful enough to figure out twists and make revelations when I do, if not even earlier. Too often I feel like YA characters are too naive or simply not perceptive enough. Perhaps it's partially due to the fact that I'm no longer a teenager. I never felt, however, that Katsa and Po were dumbed down for the audience. In the world of the Seven Kingdoms they're adults. I loved seeing Katsa and Po continually rise to the challenges that faced them, both internally and externally.

Katsa is one of my favorite heroines ever. I'll always love a heroine who can fight and hold her own against anyone, but even better than that is Katsa's characterization. Being a Graceling is not easy for any person. All Gracelings are taken to their royal courts upon discovery of their distinctive eyes. Those with Graces deemed to be useful remain under the employ of their kings while the other ones are sent back home. Having a Grace seems like it would be more of a curse than a blessing, and that is especially true for Katsa. Ever since she accidentally killed an older cousin she felt threatened by, she's been forced to carry out King Randa's "justice" through physical violence and intimidation. Although she definitely suffers from self-doubt, Katsa concentrates her energy into doing good whenever she can. It takes Katsa a while to fully realize her own freedom, and she's written in such a way that I found myself emphasizing with her situation, even though her struggles are something that I could never relate to. Katsa is not always an easy character to love, sometimes prone to anger and not always able to fully express her thoughts and feelings. But at her core it's apparent that she's a good person who has had terrible circumstances forced upon her. She's prickly but never to the point of being unrelatable, nor does she fall into that YA trope of the naive heroine unaware of her worth or what others think of her. Katsa doesn't have all the answers or self-confidence right away, but that's okay. She actually grows realistically and learns how to develop solid relationships.

The secondary characters are all strong and distinct, even with such a strong female protagonist. Po is one of my favorite YA fantasy love interests. Although he's had to hide so many truths and secrets from people over the years, he's inexplicably drawn to Katsa and trusts her from the beginning. He is perceptive enough to realize things that Katsa cannot vocalize and I loved learning about the secrets that he must struggle to hide. That twist near the end about Po almost killed me at first, but, as I continued to read and think about it, it makes perfect sense. I'll just say that Po really is defined by his perceptiveness. While I had to suspend my disbelief that Bitterblue is only ten years old, I actually loved the fact that she's an older soul in a young girl's body. As the princess of Monsea Bitterblue has been exposed to brainwashing, fear, and hopelessness. I'll believe that those difficult situations have developed Bitterblue into a more pensive and observant person. And after reading so much about Katsa's physical strength, it was really nice to contrast her with Bitterblue's more internal determination. I enjoyed how Katsa and Bitterblue act as foils for one another. I developed an understanding even of many of the minor characters, from Raffin to Bann to Grandfather Tealiff to Helda to Oll to Giddon to the many, many corrupt kings. Characterization is super important to me as a reader, and I must say that all of Cashore's characters are phenominally written. 

In Graceling I've found the type of romance that I love and expect in novels I read. I've stated many times that I abhor instalove, love triangles, or even having the romance take prominence over the storyline. None of those personal dislikes can be found within Graceling. Katsa and Po's relationship undergoes a very realistic development. Their relationship starts out with a bang when Katsa renders Po unconscious, and it never truly becomes an easy relationship for either of them. Katsa and Po must constantly challenge their perceptions of themselves and of each other. Their relationship helps make both of them stronger, but neither of them ever allows it to become more important than their mission. In that way Katsa and Po truly have a mature relationship. I just loved reading about the personal growth that occurred from being with a person based on mutual respect and understanding.

I love the fact that Graceling is not a series in the true sense of the word. Rather, Cashore chose to write a series of companion novels about this world. Fire is a chronologically earlier story that occurs in the neighboring lands while Bitterblue features many of the same characters as Graceling but switches protagonists. I finished reading Graceling with a feeling of satisfaction in its completeness. That's not too common a feeling nowadays, unfortunately.Though there were details here and there that would have been nice to have been further expanded, Cashore does tie up all the important loose ends.

I thoroughly enjoyed Kristin Cashore's Graceling. It is a well-imagined and well-characterized high fantasy that helps to remind me of why I love this genre so much. Katsa is pretty much one of my favorite protagonists ever, and she and Po have a relationship that all other YA relationships should aspire to become. I have a feeling that Graceling will become one of those books I'll reread whenever I'm in the mood for a strong female protagonist with a realistic and well-developed relationship. I can already tell I'm going to be a lifelong fan of Cashore's works.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I have no idea why I'm still waiting to read this, I mean, Melina Marchetta keeps recommending it, and that's all I need to know. I love that Katsa is such an extraordinary heroine in your eyes and this review really gave me the push I desperately needed.
    Thank you! :)

    1. haha yes a Melina Marchetta recommendation is a good indication of greatness. I think Cashore's on par with Marchetta's fantasy novels, if not even better. They're both so utterly fantastic at creating fantasy worlds with such realistic characters. And yay! I do hope you're able to read it soon! If you like Melina Marchetta's books, then I'm sure you'll love Graceling as well!

  2. Yayy! I'm so glad you enjoyed this one, Amanda! It's one of my favorites, although I have to warn you that Bitterblue was disappointing for me. Fire, on the other hand, is my FAVORITE book EVER. Seriously, I love it. I want to take a bullet for Kristin Cashore just for writing that book, so definitely DO read it. I can't recommend it enough. Fantastic review, dear! :D

    1. I am in the middle of Bitterblue right now. It's good but I'm not sure how it compares to Graceling. Fire was even better than Graceling perhaps (though it feels like a travesty to admit that). It was so good! Cashore has definitely become one of my favorite YA authors ever. And thank you so much! :)


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