Wednesday 15 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 42: "Graceling" by Kristin Cashore

Page count: 481 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Katsa lives in a series of kingdoms where a small percentage of the populations have a unique ability or grace. These people are known as Gracelings, and the abilities can be benign and useful, like being extremely skilled at baking, cooking, sewing, or in one case, being able to smell exactly what the person in question wants to eat or drink. They can also be dangerous, like Katsa's extreme fighting ability, which was discovered when she accidentally killed someone in self-defense when she was only eight years old. All Gracelings are clearly identified by eyes of different colours, but it can take a few years for the eyes to change colour, and even longer for the grace to actually become obvious. It is the rule in the various seven kingdoms (with the exception of the island kingdom of Lienid) that Gracelings pretty much become the property of their king, forced to serve him in return for room and board. Katsa is the niece of king Randa of the Middluns, and he forces her to use her abilities to threaten and sometimes even kill for him. The older she gets, the more unhappy she is about this, so she secretly also runs an underground group, of resistance fighters, the Council, in the various kingdoms, trying to secure justice for the ordinary people.

The book begins as Katsa and some of her allies are breaking into the dungeons of king Murgon of Sunder to rescue Prince Tealiff of Lienid, the elderly father of the current king of Lienid. Neither Katsa, nor her friends understand why in the world king Murgon would kidnap the kindly old man. While on the mission, Katsa also encounters Prince Po of Lienid for the first time, who is also in the kingdom looking for his missing grandfather. Katsa is trying to escape detection, so is forced to knock the handsome young man out, but when he later shows up at king Randa's court, suspecting that Katsa and her friends may know more about the whereabouts of his grandfather, they strike up a friendship. Po's grace makes him remarkably skilled at fighting, and he becomes one of the few people Katsa can really spar with, without having to worry that he won't be able to hold his own and she'll accidentally kill him.

Katsa's friendship with Po makes her realise that she's deeply unhappy with what she is constantly forced to do, and after king Randa sends her on a particularly unfair mission to threaten a good man into doing his bidding, Katsa instead disobeys his orders and subsequently confronts her uncle and refuses to work for him any longer. She knows she has enough friends and allies in the various kingdoms to manage perfectly well on her own, she was never comfortable with the privileged life of a princess anyway. She is determined to find out why Prince Tealiff was abducted and who could benefit from it, and Po accompanies her on her quest. As they travel through the various kingdoms, they come to the conclusion that there is something strange going on in Monsea, the most remote of the seven kingdoms. King Leck, who rules there, is married to one of Tealiff's daughters, who is said to have locked herself and her daughter away, grieving because of the uncertain fate of her father. King Leck is rumoured to be a kind and beloved ruler, especially fond of children and animals, but the more Katsa and Po investigate, the stranger some of the stories coming out of Monsea become, and there is clearly something very strange going on there. Why would the kindly Leck pay a fellow king to have his father-in-law kidnapped?

I first read Graceling back in 2009, about six months after it was first released. I remembered some of the details of the story and world-building, but there was also a lot that I had forgotten, such as how dark this book gets in places. It may be Young Adult, but there are a lot of serious issues covered over the course of the story, such as physical and emotional abuse, violence, manipulation, and coercion. In the second half of the book, where Po and Katsa start discovering the truth about Po's grandfather's abduction, they have to travel through very inhospitable terrain to Monsea, where they face some very unique dangers.

There is a lovely, slow-burning romance as part of the story as well, as Katsa, who has always been fiercely independent and very reluctant to ever marry, comes to discover that Po loves her, and to her surprise, she returns his feelings. Katsa never got to have much of a childhood, once it was discovered that she had a lethal grace, and she is determined never to have any children of her own who might inherit her abilities. She can't imagine why a charming, handsome and clearly very popular prince (even though he is the youngest of many) would want her. Po, on the other hand, doesn't see a ruthless thug and killer when he looks at Katsa. He sees her strong spirit, her desire for justice, he knows she started the Council and has worked tirelessly for years behind her uncle's back to stand up for the poor, downtrodden, and those who can't fight for themselves. He sees how determined she is to discover the truth behind his grandfather's kidnapping, even willing to risk her life to get to the bottom of things. It's not at all surprising that he falls for her.

One thing I didn't really realise when I first read this book, is how well the entire series by Cashore deals with female agency and control over their own lives and bodies. There is a seed that women can eat to prevent conception, and neither Katsa nor the heroines of the subsequent books are in any way shamed when they decide that they are ready to have sex. There is clearly some societal expectations that Katsa will start acting more feminine in time, and that she should settle down, marry someone and have children, but Po seems quite happy to just be with her for as long as she's willing to have him, whether they are married or not.

I remembered this as a very good example of YA literature, with a strong and admirable protagonist and a sweet romantic subplot, but I had not remembered just how complex and dark it got, and how much trauma the various characters are put through over the course of the story. So it's absolutely a book I recommend, but with some content warnings for those thinking it's just a straight-forward fantasy adventure story.

Judging a book by its cover: I have the UK paperback edition, where a girl with flowy hair and a very large sword appears to be partially clad in armour, but also ill-prepared for the snowy landscape around her, what with the bare arms and all. A lot of the other editions of this book have a stylised dagger on the cover, which seems to fit much better, as Katsa never uses a giant broadsword, but frequently relies on her daggers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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