Friday, January 21, 2011


by Kristin Cashore
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 4

Katsa is the niece of one of the kings of the Seven Kingdoms. Katsa is a Graceling, meaning she has eyes of different colors and a special power or ability; in Katsa's case, her Grace appears to be fighting, given that she inadvertently killed someone when she was little. She's now in her teens and is forced to work for her uncle King Randa, who sends her on missions to terrorize his adversaries with her Grace. Along the way she meets another Graceling, a prince of one of the other kingdoms, and gradually Katsa begins to assert her identity and humanity even while being drawn into a surprising and dangerous conspiracy.

I think comparisons to The Hunger Games are inevitable! Both are set in fantasy universes with stoic, kick-ass teenage heroines, both are rather violent (are we immune to the combination of youth and violence in YA fiction yet?), both have a friend-who-might-become-something-more... weirdly enough, both of them have main characters with the initials K and P (I raise an eyebrow)... and here's the best comparison: both of them have ridiculously compelling stories. Graceling was nearly impossible to put it down once I'd gotten into it. It was really excellently paced and I totally loved the plot.

Katsa is a great character, full of anger and doubts because of the violent lifestyle her Grace has forced her to lead. As the book progresses she begins to develop from her hardness into something fuller and more tender, yet she never seems weaker for it. It's often very pleasant spending time in her head:
She knew her nature. She would recognize it if she came face-to-face with it. It would be a blue-eyed, green-eyed monster, wolflike and snarling. A vicious beast that struck out at friends in uncontrollable anger, a killer that offered itself as the vessel of the king's fury.
But then, it was a strange monster, for beneath its exterior it was frightened and sickened by its own violence. It chastised itself for its savagery. And sometimes it had no heart for violence and rebelled against it utterly.
A monster that refused, sometimes, to behave like a monster. When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?
So why the 2.5 star rating, you may be asking yourself? Well... it's a nitpick, but one that I take seriously:
This was not the only such courtyard in the castle, but it was the largest, and it was the entrance point for any important residents or visitors. The green floor was kept to such a shine that Katsa could see herself and her horse reflected in its surface. The white walls were made of a stone that sparkled, and they rose so high that she had to crane her neck to find the tops of the turrets above. It was very grand, very impressive. As Randa liked it.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this paragraph. It's an ordinary descriptive passage, hardly worth quoting, and out of context it seems benignly adequate. And that's the problem. It's just adequate. This book has Plot with a capital P! This book has sympathetic, rockin' characters! This book is wow-tastic fantasy goodness! But, and forgive me for damning with faint praise, the writing is... competent. It gets the job done, no doubt - we do indeed come to understand that the floor is shiny - but what's the most cliched way of saying something's really shiny? It's to say that you can see your reflection in it.

Now, there's nothing wrong with using a common phrase... unless it's all you're doing. And unfortunately, Cashore is overwhelmingly unimaginative when it comes to filling in the edges of her creation; she goes for the most predictable and obvious phrases almost all the time. In one emotionally fraught scene she even has a character clutch his hair - and is there anything more dated or melodramatic than hair-clutching? It's not *badly* done, but it's not done *well*, and with such an engaging plot I wanted the language to soar. This is her first novel, which may account for it, and I don't mean to spend more time harping on the iffy points than the good. But I did find that it diminished both the book's quality and my enjoyment of it.

I also started wishing that Cashore had done more world-building. The Graceling phenomenon is fascinating, but where does it come from? Are there gods or goddesses in this fantasy world who grant gifts? Why do all Graceling have different-colored eyes - does a gene mutation cause Graces? There was no explanation for any of it; it was just part of the Plot. Additionally, there would be occasional strategy councils in the story where operatives would present information, and they would just say, "King So-and-so isn't responsible," without any reference to how that information was known to be reliable, or why it was true, or anything. It was put in because it was necessary info and then blown past because we had more Plot to get to. And the Plot was awesome! But the other elements seemed to pay a price for it.

However, I really appreciated that Cashore put her decision to combine youth and violence in great perspective:
How absurd it was that in all seven kingdoms, the weakest and most vulnerable of people - girls, women - went unarmed and were taught nothing of fighting, while the strong were trained to the highest reaches of their skill.
...which I thought an excellently cheeky point.

In any case, this is an engaging and enjoyable read, and I'd recommend it to all who like a rip-roaring good fantasy yarn (as long as you're not nitpicks like me). And I do plan on reading her sequel, Fire, as soon as I can get it from the library, so clearly the Plot was good enough for me despite my objections.  ;-)

1 comment:

  1. I often think of writing as a combination of wordsmithing and storytelling. What I want is a combination of excellence in both. I'm willing to compromise on each--storytelling possibly less so than writing, because if the author isn't telling a story that interests me somehow, I can't get through an entire book on the strength of the sentence structure and word choice (Salman Rushdie often fails me here). But if the wordsmithing is lacking, it contributes significantly to my overall impression and enjoyment of the work. So it sounds like Cashore is a dynamite storyteller and a subpar wordsmith, which is unfortunate.

    As a side note, I have been intrigued that it seems to be wordsmithing that lifts one out of genre. The Time Traveller's Wife is rarely shelved with SF and I've had many people basically tell me that it's not SF (hello! time travel!) because it's so well written.