Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Graceling - Kristin Cashore

Among those familiar with genre in-jokes, the name Mary Sue is regarded with alarm and suspicion. Used to describe an implausibly talented, attractive and Extra Speshul protagonist, it's been thrown around so carelessly of late that it's become next to useless as a criticism; surely all heroes have an element of Mary Sue in them, somewhere? However, if there ever was a character to really deserve the epithet, Graceling's heroine Katsa could well be that one. The book's not actually that bad in the end, but this is no thanks to our first impressions of the protagonist.

Katsa is the Graceling of the title, Graces being preternatural talents possessed by any individual with mismatched eyes. A Grace can be anything from cooking to archery to swimming; Katsa's particular skill is killing, which she's been doing since the age of 8. In the service of her wicked uncle, King Randa, she is used as his assassin, debt collector, enforcer and general thug, though he also insists on making her wear pretty dresses (yuck!) and trying to marry her off to some old ugly dude (urrr!). Being a Good Person, Katsa is unhappy about all this violence she is forced to commit, so has managed to set up some kind of secret international network of do-gooders, the Council. It is during a Council-mandated rescue mission that Katsa gets involved in a deeper mystery - someone had kidnapped the elderly father of a neighbouring king, but why? Aided by an Enigmatic Prince, she sets off to find out... and suddenly the book stops being annoying, and actually becomes quite good.

I'm not entirely sure how this transformation came about. The first half of the book was a real struggle to get through, consisting largely of Katsa's constant whining about how her life is So Unfair, and court politics so simplistic that it makes Robin Hobb look like a Machiavellian strategist; the second half was a compelling and decently paced adventure with a sympathetic and capable heroine. It's like a whole different author took over. It had always been a bit hard to credit how a stroppy, unstable teenager like Katsa had managed to set up a continent-wide spy network, even given the implausibility of the existing political structure, but with the Katsa that emerges in the second half, it doesn't seem so far-fetched after all. Patchy writing, maybe, but better late than never, say I. Time away from the courts also gives some much-needed distance from the silly non-politics, and instead we get more action and an interesting streak of darkness. Happily, the storyline is all wrapped up at the end, too - if a trilogy is planned, Cashore is not relying on any cheesy cliffhangers to pull us in.

Apart from Katsa's initial characterisation and the overly simple background, the only other real flaw in the book is the names. Surprisingly, Katsa is far from being the silliest name in the book; there are plenty of others that are much, much worse. King Thigpen? Prince Tealiff? Prince Po? King Randa himself, who lives in Randa City, capital of the Middluns? Do the cities (and roads) all change names every time a new king takes over? Still, at least Cashore doesn't go making up daft fantasy words for things like beer and horses, and once you get past your initial smirks, the names aren't too bad. Overall, after a shaky start, I was pleasantly surprised by this, and certainly wouldn't object to reading more of Cashore's work in future.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello. I came across your review while googling Graceling, and I was pretty interested to read it once I came across the words, "Mary Sue". I should mention that I hate Mary Sue-type novels with a passion, and having read so many, I have to say I really loved Graceling.

You mention that the words get tossed around enough to hardly be criticism, and you're right, because if you were to really accuse a character of hardcore Mary Sueness I think you'd also have to take in the reactions of the characters around them. I've read too many books where the characters have real close relationships with people who seem to have no reason to love them, they just do. Loyal friends are made through the novels with small, weak reasons, but regardless they end up either intending to or actually giving their lives for the Mary Sue. That's why there were so many subtle things that convinced me that Katsa wasn't much of a Mary Sue, although it can definitely seem that way. She says she doesn't have much friends, and she truly doesn't, yet those who are her friends ahve good reason. Raffin is the cousin she's known the longest, Helda had sympathy for her because of her own history with her Graceling son, and Po is initially intrigued by her because of the fact that he guessed she had something to do with his grandfather. I also most definitely enjoyed that she turned out not to be as invincible as we though, considering the King of Monsea.
It's probably all too subtle so that I'd end up being accused of being a bit nit-picky, but I could probably make a huge list of the differences in this novel, and blatant Mary Sue novels.
Anyway, it was cool to find your review, and I apologize if it was too presumptuous of me to make such a long comment.

9:09 pm  
Blogger Alice said...

No, not presumptuous at all, comments are always welcome!

12:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found the book not to long ago. I liked it a lot. More so then any other books I've come across. I found myself comparing other books to it.
I liked what you wrote. All of it I can agree with. Especially the names. But I can get over that. I loved the princess. Was it Bluebitter? I can't remember. I think the part I was stuck at was the part where she was going through that mountain path. I knew she was going to make it out, but I was still afraid.
Then there is the first part of the book. It is a little boring in the first half. If Prince Po hadn't been in it. I think I would of lost interest very quickly.
I think I might go and reread it. I couldn't remember all the characters names.
Sorry if what I wrote doesn't really comment on what you wrote.

11:20 pm  
Blogger Alice said...

Bitterblue was the princess, IIRC, and yes, she was one of the best characters.

11:05 am  
Blogger lidia said...

i actully thought the book was kindda disapointing.... i thought it would have more action parts.. but i liked the part of the love story ^^

7:21 pm  
Anonymous Ruaraidh said...

Did anyone else feel that the whole thing with the King of Monsea was resolved rather abruptly?

The end just didn't feel in sight to me as I was reaching the last part of the book and I felt sure that this was going to be another "first of a trillogy" novel but then it was over.

Not a complaint really seeing as it was wrapped up neatly, it just seemed a bit sudden.

1:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have read Cashore's book, Graceling, and I thought it was an awesome book! I really impressed with how much it had instore... Love triangles, suspence, intimacy, anything for everybody!!!
Definately a good read!

12:05 am  
Anonymous alicia said...

i dont know how to get kristins c's glimpse of what her characters look like. i need a bit more than the information she gave in the book. just like a picture or something. its better for me to know what they look when im reading. i have to re-read the book now.

6:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading Graceling. I liked the idea of a world with people who are born with a supernatural gift and that the powers range from super-good sewing skills to mind-reeading. I really like literature and I think if I was to write a novel it might turn out something like Graceling, not to be cocky or anything. I thought that I might have good ideas but carrying the idea out to make a riveting story would be the challenge. I found that Graceling really lacked a good plot. The case of the missing grandfather? -was kind of boring. But I also found that the book was really inspirational. It had a lot of potential and the fact that it was so hastily wrapped up at the end leaves a lot of possibilities for fanfiction writers. When I read about Bitterblue and her conflict with her father, it opened a door of imagination that lead me to experimental writing about how the story could have taken an ugly twist for Bitterblue if Kasta and Po didn't save her, if Bitterblue was left to face her father. How she would have struggled to love her father when he would hurt her. How her life would have been a mixture of terror, but utter confusion. Maybe she would be the next to die after her mother. Maybe she would learn to guard her thoughts. Maybe ... maybe... maybe... Taking pieces of Graceling and just letting it take you to different paths and possibilities is so much fun. Graceling is so inspirational, I love it!

sorry this comment doesn't really have anything to do with the post..

5:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As far as your Mary Sue accusation, the earlier commenter nailed it. Being a Mary Sue isn't about being pretty or talented or having a dark past. It's about how the plot and supporting characters react to the MC and whether or not the plot places true obstacles in their path. That in mind, Katsa is far from a Sue. She's a flawed character with real struggles, the most intense of which she does not overcome easily. The other characters react realistically to her and those flaws, and the plot doesn't mold itself to allow for her instant success, as it would in a Mary Sue's story.
I do agree that the ending was a bit sudden, but it worked, and if you think about it, Katsa didn't single-handedly create the Council as a kingdom-wide organization of do-gooders. She decided she wanted to be more than a monster, and suggested an idea to two companions. They spread it across the borders, and it grew so out-of-hand that Katsa was no longer truly in charge. In fact, I don't think she was ever in charge of the Council. It's not so difficult to imagine. Besides, the only reason she chose the concept of the Council over actual rebellion against Randa was because she wasn't strong enough to resist her uncle. That is not a trait of a Mary Sue character.
Finally, what do you have against the names? They're not unlike names from The Hunger Games or most fantasy novels. In fact, they're much tamer than Lord of the Rings or the Inheritance Cycle. Towards the end of the book, Katsa says (or very strongly implies) that the names of the capitals do change with the monarch; Leck City in Monsea was to be remamed Bitterblue City when Bitterblue took the throne.
I'm sorry that this sounds argumentative. That's not what I was going for at all. I see your points, but I don't think that they are real flaws in the book. :)

3:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I forgot to mention this, but Katsa's Grace was irksome at times. Some things, like the mountain lion, seemed just too easy. The fact that she wasn't able to overcome Leck until the very end and that it took 18 years before she could muster the courage to leave Randa's court made up for it, though, or very nearly did.

4:00 pm  

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