Graceling was first published in 2008 and is the debut novel of Kristin Cashore. It is a high fantasy story which focuses on a teenage girl of noble birth as she discovers her strengths and place in the world. The book is the first of a trilogy – collectively known as the Graceling Realm series – and is followed by Fire (2009) and Bitterblue (2012).

Katsa has always been an outcast in society. Gracelings – humans born with exceptional savant skills – are viewed with superstition by normal people. As Katsa is cursed with the Grace of Killing, most people have grown to hate and fear her. Seeing her potential, the cruel King Randa takes her under his wing and exploits her abilities in order to punish those who disobey him.

Growing gradually disillusioned with her life, Katsa founds the Council – a band of people who dedicate their lives to rescuing the unfortunate, rather than causing more suffering. It is through the Council that she comes to learn of a high profile kidnapping. The King of Lienid’s grandfather has been taken – a crime made more curious by the fact that it seems to have no political motivation – and she soon learns that he is being held in King of Sunder’s dungeons.

In rescuing the old man, Katsa finds herself drawn into the mystery that surrounds him. Teaming up with Po – the seventh son of the Lienid king – she sets off on a quest to uncover the identity of the kidnapper. However, she does not realise quite how dangerous her foe is and soon finds herself battling for survival against an enemy with powers far more terrifying than her own…

It’s been a while since I’ve found myself saying this but Graceling is a novel that I have incredibly mixed feelings about. In some ways, I want to really commend it because it had aspects that really spoke to me as reader but in other ways it just made me want to cry out in frustration. I think I’ll start by looking at some of the good.

The world in which Graceling is set is so full of potential. It is, in essence, a medieval superhero story. Graces don’t work like any magic I’ve seen in high fantasy before. They’re more of an inherent skill or mutant power that a child develops as they grow. There is no aspect of being taught or learning a Grace – it something that is personal and unique to each Graceling. Graces also vary in usefulness. Some develop exceptional talents for archery or cooking, while others develop more supernatural abilities such as mind reading. There is even indication that some Graces are wholly useless, such as the ability to hold one’s breath for a really long time. This idea is very original and I at first found that it captured my imagination, making me want to read more.

There is also a wonderful balance between the two protagonists – a sense that they provide two halves of one whole. It reminded me a lot of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games. I’m not saying that Graceling is ripping off The Hunger Games (a glance at the publication date would show that this is highly unlikely) but both stories do effectively flip the gender norms and this is always something that I love to read.

Katsa is the brawn of the story. She is physically powerful, a skilled survivalist and knows her own mind. In a world where women are generally expected to marry young and bear lots of children, Katsa knows that this is not for her. She is eager to never get married and she clings to this desire for the entire novel. Po compliments her wonderfully, bringing to the story a set of character traits that are more commonly seen in literary females. He is sensitive, understanding and displays the emotional vulnerability that Katsa lacks. The relationship they have is one based on equality and freedom – the story even making references to Katsa’s use of birth control to avoid unwanted pregnancy. This is the thing that I found most wonderful about the novel.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a mother – it’s written into a girl’s biology and so many naturally do have this desire. However, it is not something that’s for everyone and certainly should not be pushed as being a social norm for all girls to adhere to. It is a fact that some girls just don’t desire a nuclear family. It’s not something that they “grow out of”, it’s just what is natural to them. This perspective is not one that this shown very often in young adult literature and so it did really endear Katsa to me. I was so glad that this aspect of her character did not change by the end of the story.

However, for all the things that I liked about the novel, I still found that I struggled to get through it at times. While there are a lot of aspects of the universe that initially captured my interest, the story felt rather superficial and hardly scratched the surface of these ideas. The world in which this story is set is split into seven kingdoms, each with its own King and not all of which seem to get on. As this was exposited very early on, I was expecting the novel to be highly political – perhaps like a young adult version of A Game of Thrones – yet the solution turned out to be far more simple than this. All political world building took a very distant backseat in this tale. It is, simply, a love story set around a very straightforward quest into enemy territories.

Although the story did contain some incredibly good twists that I did not see coming, it still always felt that it was lacking some depth. Even the Council, who were a driving force in the first quarter of the novel, began to gradually lose importance and be mentioned less and less as the story progressed. When the reason behind the kidnapping was finally revealed, it was so anticlimactic that I had to put down the book down for the night to recover. The story also had a habit of meandering for long periods of time – such as spending dozens of pages describing random conversations held by Katsa and Po as they traveled. While these seemed to be intended to build character, they did not really do enough to make them seem worthwhile – largely covering the same ground over and over as most of the important character development did not occur until close to the end of the story.

I was also not too enamoured by the villain of the tale, finding him to be one of the weakest that I have encountered in a novel for a long time. He only appears to Katsa twice in the story and so never really felt as though he had much of a presence. His reasoning – if he had any – is also never revealed and so it just left me forced to assume that he was simply insane. I understand that Fire is a prequel and so maybe he’ll get some more development there but in Graceling he left little impression on me and so was incredibly forgettable.

My other primary problem was the lack of limitation on the Graces – particularly Katsa and Po’s. It did seem to me that they were constant deus ex machinas, evolving as necessary in order to allow them both to survive any situation. I am forced to be vague here to avoid extreme spoilers but I will point out that having the “Grace of Killing” seems to mean that you can do anything within this story (except for see in the dark, which one might of thought would be quite useful to an assassin). This unfortunately made Katsa a bit of a Mary Sue as she seemed to be able to adapt to any situation and threat, even ones later in the story which earlier events had strongly implied that she would not have been able to adapt to. While I don’t have the vehement hatred Mary Sues that some readers do, it did unfortunately remove some of the tension. I never worried about Katsa’s survival because the novel never once made gave me reason to believe that she could be hurt.

I feel that I’m starting to ramble a bit so I’ll wrap up. Graceling was an intriguing novel that a fan of high fantasy may find enjoyable. It presents some rather unique ideas, a strong female protagonist and a relationship between the two protagonists that is based on sexual freedom and equality, rather than the more common prelude to marriage that one tends to find in these medieval fantasies. While it was a decent debut for Cashore, it did still feel as though it was missing something. The characters seemed a little too overpowered while the story was very basic, hardly scratching the surface of the impressive world that the author was trying to build. While this wasn’t the best novel that I have reviewed it has left me curious to see if the writing will improve in Fire.

Graceling can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on

4 Comments (+add yours?)

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