Last night I stayed up too late for a work night, because I couldn’t stop reading Graceling. I’d picked it up because I had seen it recced on some lists for fantasy novels with strong female characters – and boy, am I glad I did!
It starts out well, with a fascinating main character, Katsa, a young woman “graced” with the ability to kill. This book is her story, the story of how she breaks free from the cruel king (her uncle) who had used her talents to his own ends since she was a little girl and goes on an adventure with the man who was the catalyst to her emancipation. Po is a prince from faraway Lienid, but he is also Graced (shown by his two-colored eyes, same as with all Gracelings) and has the gift to fight. In the beginning Katsa’s instant attraction to him got on my nerves a bit because I had been conditioned to expect the story to follow the familiar pattern of “a mysterious stranger changed my life”. However, this was not how it played out – this book is firmly feminist, and Katsa never loses her agency, even as she falls in love for the first time in her life.
On the contrary, claiming her own will is the most important lesson she learns as the journey continues, and Po is the perfect companion, the two of them complimenting each other wonderfully. And what a journey it is – Cashore describes the many twists and turns in tight prose, propelling the reader along, but without neglecting the characters and relationships. Again and again there are pages of conversation and thoughts, as Katsa and Po travel together. Cashore creates some wonderful supporting characters, for example, who I would have loved to learn more of – like the friendship between Katsa and her cousin/best friend, the crown prince Raffin and his side-kick Bann, as well as the 10-year-old Princess Buttercup who is surprisingly non-annoying and interesting. They all feel like real persons, as if Cashore knew exactly how they developed into the people we meet.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but I do love the relationship politics in the story – several of the reviews I read on GoodReads criticise them, but I find it refreshing (and suited to Katsa’s character) that there is no fairytale wedding in what is doubtlessly a true love story. After all, the setting, in best fantasy tradition, seems medieval, and back then, most marriages had little to do with love and more with the woman becoming the man’s property. Not very romantic – and Katsa and Po are two very unconventional people anyway, with talents that mark them as different and outside of normal society, no matter what they do. Which is what made me love them so much.