Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I had read that Graceling and its sequels were unusually good as young adult fantasy goes, and had particularly good handling of gender. That was enough to get me on board, and for the most part it delivers on its promises.

So taking on specifically the gender issues: Cashore manages to work a fair bit of exploration of gender roles and expectations into the narrative without making it an overdominant theme. Katsa coming to grips with her place as an atypical woman in a society with definite ideas of feminity is thoughtfully done, and well-focused by the choice of minor focus characters like Giddon and Hilda, both of whom embody ideas about feminine roles which Katsa subverts. Her relationship with Po, by way of contrast, presents an example of admiration unfettered by gender expectations. All in all, there’s a lot to like in the presentation of female characters — there aren’t a lot of them, I’ll admit, but the ones there are turn out to be very well realized.

It’s also a debut novel, which I would normally grant significant latitude in terms of style and craft, but honestly Cashore doesn’t seem to need it. She’s got a good grasp of style, with a well-balanced expository depth: scenes and action are well-described but not overdetailed. I recall encountering a few bits which fell very slightly flat stylistically, but the fact that I don’t remember specifically what they were means they can’t have been that bad.

There are a few flubs, to my mind, in worldbuilding and characterization. I’m a bit annoyed by the cultural/racial essentialism in having one of the Seven Kingdoms be the designated Good Guys: the nice folks with a thriving economy and significant gender equity and no prejudice against the Graced. There are of course decent (and not-decent) people from the other societies we see, but there’s a pervasive feel that the Lienids are just inherently good. A few of the characters feel a bit wrong to me too: most of them are fleshed out well, with a believable blend of good and bad points, but I have some trouble with our protagonist and the big villain (whose identity is a mystery for much of the book, so I’ll leave him unnamed). Katsa’s problem, to me, is that her flaws don’t really sync too well with her history. We see in detail how she is impulsive and impatient, and needs to be reined in by er more even-tempered associates. This doesn’t quite square, to my mind, with the established history of her forming a covert injustice-fighting network spanning the five central kingdoms. It seems it’d make a lot more sense to attribute the administration to Raffin or Oll, both of whom seem like awfully organization-minded guys. And then there’s the villain. He’s authentically terrifying, but he could be terrifying simply by being power-mad and domineering. The petty sadism (he chops up puppies!) tips him over a little bit into farce. I’m not sure what the sadism is doing here, to be frank, unless it’s just for shock value.

However, despite my dwelling on the few places where this book got it wrong, it got it right a lot more, and was an enjoyable page-turner. It packed a lot of good stuff into a fairly short read (which is also welcome; in the wake of Harry Potter, it seems that enormous tomes for the young-adult set are popular, and enormous tomes in fantasy have always had their fans, so it’s nice to see a short book deserve its hype).

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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