Graceling by Kristin Cashore is a young adult fantasy set in a world where people can have a magic-like power, called a Grace. But unlike magic, Graces only enhance one particular ability, such as cooking, fighting, or swimming.
Now, this is a young adult, so there is only one POV character and the story is all about her. Katsa is a Graceling, one Graced with what she believes is fighting. Katsa, a seventeen year with two different color eyes – the symbol of Gracelings – lives in a kingdom where she does bully work for her uncle, the king. When we meet her, she is rescuing a prisoner of another king, because since it is a young adult novel, our hero must also be a saint – she forms a council of do-gooders – all at the ripe age of 17. Then she meets this guy named Po, who of course she has to fall in love with later on, who can stand up to her fighting like no one else could. Turns out, this guy is the nephew of the prisoner she saved, so the two of them must journey to find out why the guy was kidnapped in the first place. Along the way, they learn her Grace is survival, not fighting and the other guy has mind powers – you know, pretty standard fare. They save a princess (cousin to the guy Po and named Bitterblue for crying out loud) and they defeat the evil king – super quickly by the way. They love each other, but don’t want to marry one another for reasons and they go their separate ways to promise to come back to one another for more reasons. Everyone wins!
Let me just say this up front: I typically don’t read young adult, even fantasy novels which are my jam. However, I read this because I was toying with writing a young adult story and wanted to dip my toes in the genre to see what it was like. That said, I did enjoy this novel quite a bit.
While I normally don’t enjoy single POVs (mainly because I love epic fantasy with big scopes), Katsa was engaging and fun to follow. When I think of YA, I think of kids not acting like adults or learning to be adults. Katsa was neither. She was dark and brooding and interesting. Ms. Cashore doesn’t spend too much time exposing Katsa’s emotions, but rather lets them come out in the course of the story. Katsa was a hidden person, keeping emotions at bay, but then she slowly learns to grow and interact with people. It was a slow burn that made the story excellent.
I truly enjoyed the “magic” system in this story. It made the characters human and it was interesting that Graces could manifest in anything, not just badassery, though Katsa got one of the better ones. It was cool how Katsa and Po both had this initial idea of their Graces and because people with Graces in this world are semi-loners, they were totally wrong about it. But what was great storytelling was how these characters brought it out of each other, though it did resolve itself a bit quickly for my taste (see further below).
Like I said above, even though this is YA, it was a darker tale than what I am used to in this genre. Though it isn’t gritty or super dark, there is an underlying shadow on this world, not all ribbons and rainbows, which makes it more enjoyable for someone like me. There is intrigue in the kingdoms and Ms. Cashore doesn’t shy away completely from the truths of reality, which was a breath of fresh air.
Since I don’t typically like YA, this part is only “bad” because it isn’t my favorite genre level. I thought things moved too fast and too conveniently. For example, the defeat of the evil king was so easy and over so quickly, that I was disappointed. And the way in which they figured out the king’s Grace was way to simplistic for the characters to deduce. Like they literally had a thought about it and then poof, its true. Then they win. It would have been way more satisfying to draw out the Grace of the king, because it did have some serious potential.
Also, Katsa, though only seventeen, was way too adult for my vision of the character. I understand that she lived this crazy life of fighting from a young age and that makes a person grow up quicker than others, but I found it difficult to envision her starting this global secret council doing public service. Just seemed like she wouldn’t have had the experience to do something like that, just too young in the sense of the world. But then again, teenagers were considered adults way back when.
Another thing that bothered me was Katsa always called Bitterblue “child.” I understand Bitterblue was like ten, but Katsa is not all that much older. Just sounded strange to read/hear from Katsa so often in the book, way too grandmotherly.
The last thing that bothered me, and again, this is small potatoes in the scheme of things, I didn’t like how the evil king was defeated and then there were some 50-100 pages left to go in the story. This is where the YA/romance trickles in and they have to set up how Katsa and Po are going to live after they won. I think it could have been scaled back tremendously since this book is standalone (though there are very loose continuations by Ms. Cashore).
4 out of 5