Review of GRACELING by KRISTIN CASHORE
Plot and characters aside, even the magic and the worldbuilding of Cashore’s work intrigue me. Some people are born with each eye a different color - this indicates they’re “Graced” with a magical gift, a superior skill. Some can bake cakes that rival any other dessert in the world, some can run faster than any non-Graced human, some can fight, sing, dance implausibly well, etc. Our protagonist Katsa has a killing Grace. She can touch someone on the back of the neck with one thumb and kill them with absolutely no effort, for example. Her ability to kill didn’t even require any training; however, she did self-teach control. Now she exhibits impressive mastery over her Grace, adjusting her unnatural strength to merely stun victims rather than kill them. Unfortunately, she’s still a weapon. By law all Gracelings born in this land must be sent to the king as soon as their eyes change. If the king doesn’t find their Grace useful he can dismiss them, but otherwise they’re his property to use as he wishes. Thus, Katsa finds herself the vicious, trained pet of King Randa, to be unleashed at his whim on those who displease him and therefore feared by everyone who recognizes her.
This novel challenges our understanding of gender since there’s no man Katsa cannot overpower. And I don’t mean overpower with enough effort; I mean there’s no man she cannot overpower with ease. There are countless books that star women warriors, but often these warriors must work even harder than the men to make up for size or build or lack of natural talent. Katsa’s a different kind of character, because she’s a born woman warrior. Many find characters like this - who don’t need to work for their gifts - annoying, but Katsa prompts a different dialogue. Her ridiculous invincibility only makes it all the more exciting and provocative when she encounters conflicts that render her Grace useless or, even worse, a weapon to be used against her and others. That’s what I loved about Katsa from the start. Her Grace is as much as a curse as a gift, because it makes her by definition a weapon. Though not for traditional reasons, men still want to possess her, to use her. It may take an entire army to physically subdue her, but Randa’s prepared to send every able body he has against Katsa if she doesn’t do as ordered. She’s too valuable a weapon to lose. So Katsa becomes a prisoner of her own empowering gift.
I mentioned I loved the worldbuilding in GRACELING and one of my favorite things about this magic system is that it throws us curves. Gracelings aren’t born with their Grace written on their forehead. Their eyes indicate they must be Graced with something, but it’s up to them to figure out what. Someone might think their Grace is one thing only for future events to force them to redefine it. So, even as a fantasy book, the human understanding of magic has an almost scientific taste by its imperfect scope.
I admired the writing as well. Even thought it’s third, not first, person, the writing actually mirrors Katsa’s personality. Rather than elegant, flowing, beautiful prose, the sentence structure is predominantly short, blunt, and clipped, to the point without any unnecessary words or descriptions. The very writing captures Katsa’s curt and brusque personality, easily annoyed by anything superfluous and fixated on whatever she needs in the present moment.
This might be an easy book to brush off for an over the top heroine, but I challenge those of that mindset to look deeper. Stronger women may be becoming more common in fantasy, young adult, and literature in general, but Cashore’s work still pushes the boundaries of how we define gender and what we mean by the word “strength.”