Gracelings are people gifted with abilities far above what anyone could call a talent. Katsa is gifted with the ability to run faster, strike harder and kill anyone better than anyone who has ever lived.
Graceling is the author Kristen Cashore’s first novel. It recounts the story of Katsa; a gifted killer in the employ of a King. Far beyond the norm for a girl; Katsa can run for hours, see in the dark and kill wild lions with her bare hands. She is dispatched to maim or terrify those that displease King Randa, to whom she owes total loyalty and fealty. Her secret rebellion against this world is discovered by another gifted fighter and Katsa joins him on a quest to learn the secret behind a royal kidnapping.
For a first novel, this is certainly an excellent first impression; I shared the first chapter with my Daughter as I read it and she was so intrigued that she demanded that I read it to her in its entirety when I was finished with my review. Graceling is exciting in places, contemplative in others and gorgeous in others.
The “Graced” inhabit a world that loves and fears them; save those that live free on an island kingdom removed from the politics of the mainland. They are vetted and employed by kings and queens for their skills and live (for the most part) at the whim of others. I couldn’t help but find a number of parallels between Graceling and 1602 (by Neil Gaiman) where the “Graced” are simple analogs to the Mutant heroes that populate comics (X-Men for example) but set in a Fantasy world. This is not a critical point however; it makes the characters somewhat familiar, not off-putting.
As for the characters themselves, we have the Mysterious Stranger/Love Interest, The Punk Nerd/Best Friend, The Older Man/Trainer, The Mother Analogue, the Overbearing Father and even the “wise ass little sister”. Again; these are familiar archtypes that I encourage you to discover in the story for yourself, especially the spurned suitor. Being a Young-Adult novel, complex characterizations aren’t what one would expect.
In the quiet moments, when the characters are just existing and no plot movement is going on we are treated to characters as people instead of archetypes and the author gives us people to sympathize with rather than thin action/adventure caricatures. The Quiet moments inevitably happen during some period of travel, which are as numerous as those in the Lord of the Rings; one could imagine the characters passing a pair of hairy-footed little people and having them curse under their breath “horses, why didn’t we think of horses?”
However; all of the characters save Po and Raffi seem to be dim, waiting on the Graced girl to do their thinking for them, Oll who is the spymaster for a King always seems to be one step behind Katsa. Katsa may be a skilled fighter, but Raffi (and others) all remarked that she was not the most perceptive of people; but she has built a grand enterprise around her. This uneven storytelling was off putting at points. Right there on page 183 Po calls out (in so many words) that the council proves that Katsa is much more intelligent than she gives herself credit for, which only enforces my concern with the storytelling regarding Katsa’s character. We’re constantly given these adolescent characters who are not sure of themselves, but able to draw to themselves these crowds of followers. Can’t we have a confident character who is also a protagonist? The self-assured are usually villains and supporting characters, can’t we have a self-assured hero who is legitimate?
It is an old world we are given, with people of fantastic gifts who have become a part of every day life. The extraordinary made tame if not banal. Which, I suppose is what would happen; given the circumstances of the story. People of great ability but limited means used as tools to an end; not quite slavery but not freedom either. Po represents the departure from that form; his circumstances being exceptional in the world we are presented with.
As for the actual story? By the later chapters I found myself willing the Author to forgo the very things that made the narriative so compelling, skip the traveling parts I would will the words to just vanish. It’s a well-paced, engaging piece of fantasy. The characters, while thin at points, are still strong enough to make you want to follow them on. I sussed the majority of the story early on (it’s a young adult fantasy, how complex do you want it to be) but I wasn’t bored, which is a great accomplishment. I don’t need a surprise twist to enhance a story, I just need a strong narrative and characters that I enjoy spending my time on. Graceling provides us with a semi-familiar fantasy setting with a rounded history and believable world that one could easily have loved as a teenager and thought back fondly on as an adult.