Thursday, January 22, 2009

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Plot Summary: Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight--she's a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king's thug. When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po's friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace--or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

I lost count of the number of people who’ve recommended this book to me, and the waiting list at the library was around the block, a few times. So when it was finally in my hands, I opened it with anticipation...and then spent the next two days obsessively sneaking in pages whenever I had spare minutes. : )

Katsa is an amazing, well-developed, real character. She was shown to us in vivid colors through her actions and reactions. I recognized and identified with her fears and emotions, since I’ve felt them myself. Very well done. Two enthusiastic thumbs up to Ms. Cashore on her character development.

That said, there were two aspects of the story that gave me pause.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

When figuring out the plot of a novel, the author needs to ask a very important question: what’s the worst thing that can happen? Because that, right there, is the highest stake your story can have.

In Graceling, the absolute worst thing to happen would have been for King Leck to turn Katsa against Po and Bitterblue, and then put Katsa under his thumb. Those are the two things she’d have hated the most. I both anticipated and dreaded this because I knew exactly how hard this would be on her. But I expected it, because I couldn’t imagine anything worse. Even Katsa acknowledges this...and I was disappointed that some version of it didn’t happen.

Which brings me to the next pause – Katsa didn’t grow as much as I’d hoped she would. Granted, she’s a character that’s resistant to change. And that’s fine. But her growth was akin to half a baby step, and I wanted more.

Katsa discovers that her Grace isn’t killing, it’s survival. This gives her the natural ability to physically take on whatever threatens her, and win. But what about emotionally? Yeah, she struggles with her feelings for Po, but that’s as far as it goes. She doesn’t struggle for her independence, she doesn’t wrestle with the idea of marriage sometime in the (far) future, and she doesn’t even attempt to be more observant of the people around her.

Let’s look at Katsa’s independence. She’d been manipulated and put under the thumb of a bully when she was eight years old. She had been made to believe that she was powerless, unimportant, and not worthy of human interaction. Pretty major stuff, which built up some hefty anger issues – not exactly easy to get over.

Yet, when she leaves King Randa, the bully, she does so pretty easily. She struggles with her anger, but not with the idea that she doesn’t deserve to be controlled. It's more like she just decides she's not going to let King Randa use her anymore, then leaves. But what about all the baggage that comes with it? While I understand the power of choice, it seems a little too convenient that her baggage was just left behind.

People who get themselves out of one trap will often fall right into another, and getting out of the second trap is where the real learning and growth begins. But this doesn’t happen with Katsa. She gets her independence and keeps it, learning nothing and doing no exploration about why she feels she deserves it. I wanted to see this.

I also wanted to see more exploration as to why she doesn’t want to get married. What is it that turns her off? The idea of losing her independence? She doesn’t want to have kids? Doesn’t want outside expectations imposed upon her? Or is it a fear of opening herself up to someone for the rest of her life? Some of these things are touched on, but not explored. Considering Katsa’s strong feelings on the subject, I wanted to know more.

Personally, I understand Katsa’s reluctance to marry. She’s been manipulated and controlled nearly her whole life, and doesn’t want to be in that position again. I’ve been there. I get it. But what isn’t mentioned is that a healthy relationship has none of these qualities. With Po, Katsa is in her first healthy, mutual relationship. Jumping into marriage at this point is not only unbelievable, it’s not smart. She’s not ready, and I think she’s right to not marry Po and go live happily ever after. However, to still refuse to marry him and not even entertain the thought that maybe, far into the future, she might change her mind, makes her seem small-minded and stubborn for no reason.

I’m not saying that I think Katsa and Po need to be married in order to have a fulfilling relationship. But to stick to your childhood ideals just because you...well, just because, does not show strength of character. This made me sad because I liked Katsa a lot, and I have high expectations from those I like.

Still, this was a good book and a fun read, and Katsa is a wonderfully strong character that I think teen girls should read. Hell, I think everyone should read about her. : )


Unknown said...

I also expected something more of a struggle with Katsa and the king--I wanted to see him turn her on Bitterblue (although I assume that was coming). But I thought Po's secret being revealed was something of a mental struggle against being turned against Po, so I was OK with that.

I also thought that Katsa did not grow much. I think I expected less than you--I really just wanted her to grow to the point where a committed relationship (maybe even marriage) was viable.

The author posted on her blog (can't remember the address, but there's a link on my site under writers) about her reasoning for Katsa being so against marriage, and I see where she's coming from. I posted a long explanation of what I thought about it--but it sums up to what you and I are both saying: character growth for Katsa would have meant a more committed relationship with Po than was detailed in the book. I was fine with Katsa's release from her uncle, fight with the other king, etc. being somewhat easier on her because I expected her real struggle to be emotional (in the relationship), but that whole issue is instead glossed over and avoided.

Marcia said...

When figuring out the plot of a novel, the author needs to ask a very important question: what’s the worst thing that can happen? Because that, right there, is the highest stake your story can have.

I love this! And I agree with your comments on marriage. I feel Katsa should have been able to consider the possibility for the future. I saw her complete refusal as the author butting in to make a feminist statement. Even a brief "maybe someday, marriage" would have signaled that she gets the idea of a healthy relationship.

PJ Hoover said...

I totally agree that Katsa was a great character, and I didn't want to put this novel down, either. But I felt kinda really cheated on the plot. Every time it seemed like excitement was building, it would just then kind of fizzle off. Great tension between Katsa and Po at first. Then it fizzled to the point that when they actually did get together, I didn't feel satisfied. Same with the graced king. He sees them in the woods, Katsa almost turns, they run away, and then there's a 50 page trek across a snowy mountain. Where was the king this whole time? I wanted much more out of the action plot.
That said, I think I am geared toward action and less toward character development.
And like I said at the start, I also didn't want to stop reading.

Unknown said...

PS--Here's that link I mentioned--it's pretty cool to read the comments. I was the first nay-sayer, but people had good commentary on the subject.

C.R. Evers said...

I didn't read the spoilers, because I'm on the waitlist for this one at the library. I'm looking forward to reading it! :0)


Tabitha said...

Beth - yeah, I saw that post on her blog too. I like that she doesn't want to show that marriage is the only way to have a fulfilling relationship. But, personally, it didn't do enough to explain Katsa's lack of growth. I realize people don't always grow in the real world, but fiction isn't the real world. :) BTW, I thought the comments on her blog post were very interesting. Thanks for sharing the link!

Marcia - I agree. Her flat refusal to consider marriage did feel like author intrusion. Which is a shame, because the story and characters are so compelling!

PJ - yeah, same here. Things seemed a bit too easy for Katsa. She got her independence without fighting for it, she got Po with very little inner turmoil, she got rid of King Leck with hardly much confrontation, etc. I wanted more, too. Katsa's character was what really made the story compelling. If she'd had to struggle more, I'm sure I'd have cried for her.

GWG - very true. Not only do we need to create strong, rounded characters, we need to make them suffer and grow, too. :)

Christy - it's a good book, even with its shortcomings. You'll enjoy it. :)