Graceling

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“When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?”

 

Cashore’s novel Graceling is exactly what a fantasy novel should be – a tight plot, fantastic characters who you travel the novel’s landscapes with, and whose journey is constantly one of fascination and interest.

Our protagonist is Katsa, niece to King Randa, who is Graced with killing. She is a master assassin, used on missions to kill those that the King needs killing. But Katsa has also formed her own council of companions, and after they discover a kidnapping, the mystery only starts to increase – and Katsa is the one who decides to figure it out.

One of the strongest parts of Graceling is the characters. Especially in stories with long journeys, characters have to be brilliant to keep you engaged with the lesser action. Katsa is very distinctive very quickly and while some may think that Katsa’s manner fills the trope of ‘feisty female character’, I think Cashore has armed her much better than that. To me, having a ‘feisty’ character is only a problem if the character is two dimensional and that is their only distinguishing feature. Katsa has a depth to her character that continues to grow and change as the novel goes on: from the girl whose Grace is manipulated by her uncle to someone who realises what she wants and goes about getting it. For Katsa it’s a fight for her independence and she is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast. Her friends at Randa’s court are engaging, and Helda is a particularly well-worked contrast – especially given she’s the only real female friend Katsa has. Katsa’s fighting grace has not gained her many female friends in the court and we sympathise with her loneliness when nobody wants to go near her when they hear of her Grace. The culture of her uncle’s Kingdom towards Graced children never feels too info-dump-y, and is always linked back to Katsa. The part I admire especially about Cashore’s characterisation is that every character feels vivid and real, and like they have their own fascinating stories to tell – even minor characters, some of whom might not even be named beyond ‘innkeeper’! They really are alive instantly as people, which must be very difficult to do; to bring life into even the most minor characters is a rare occurrence, I’ve found. It’s this that I think helps Cashore’s prose run so beautifully – characters who might only show the tip of their iceberg feel like there is a whole iceberg underneath that might have a story hidden inside. The even greater skill is keeping the iceberg submerged if it’s not needed; fantasy can occasionally show every detail just because it can – but these details should work for their place on the page.

And then the journey itself, the well-peddled trope of many a fantasy novel. It’s filled with many conversations and a lot of Katsa’s thought process but because of the nature of it (no spoilers!) that’s actually entirely relevant and necessary, as well as giving us the luxury of delving further into Katsa’s character. The fact she rides at breakneck speed doesn’t hurt either! There is not excess detail which is helped by Katsa’s practical way of thinking. If there’s a rabbit to be skinned, she doesn’t waste time telling us what it feels like. It’s a rabbit, it’s cooking, and she’s off getting on with something else. It offers a good pace to the whole novel that never wavers, which works really well. It means we’re not left twiddling our thumbs during any point of the journey. Nobody is hanging around in this story!

The other thing I loved about this is that at no point does Katsa either become reliant on one of her many male friends and colleagues, or throw away her story for the sake of a love interest. She says she’s not interested in marriage or babies, and the reaction within the novel isn’t one of “oh well maybe she’ll have changed by the end of the novel INSERT MALE INTEREST HERE”. I love that about it, and that it doesn’t ever say that Katsa is somehow wrong or crazy for not wanting to become a wife and mother. Without being too “and this is my opinion!”, Cashore explores Katsa’s opinion but doesn’t question it, which I think isn’t done enough when female characters go against their expected eventual roles, once they’ve finished gallivanting around whatever country in whatever story needs saving. And that’s shown as okay and there’s not a song and dance made about the fact that Katsa rejects the traditional roles the society of the novel has decided to hand down to her.

Other readers may consider Cashore’s writing sparse in terms of description, but I find it an excellent example of ‘less is more’. Cashore (and Katsa!) don’t waste words, and this is something that makes Graceling such a resounding success for me. Because it doesn’t waste words, the story is constantly ticking over and the reader, while not feeling rushed, doesn’t have chance to lose interest in any particularly descriptive passages, for example. No scene feels like it could be lost, as it all contributes to the overall plot arc. It’s a style of writing that I am both a great admirer of and greatly envious of at the same time!

Katsa’s story is one I absolutely adored, and one I’ll certainly return to. It reminded me of a cross between the Books of Pellinor and Magician’s Guild, two of my three all-time favourite series, and I don’t think I can pay it a greater compliment than that. I’ll be re-reading this many times in the future.

Things I liked about this book: The pace, the characterisation, the plotting… everything!

Things I was less keen on: If I was being indulgent I’d say it could have been longer, but only because I was sad when it was over and I wanted it to just keep going!

 

Graceling: 9.5/10 (I hear the sequels are EVEN BETTER :O )

 

If you liked this, try:
The Gift by Alison Croggon
The Magician’s Guild by Trudi Canavan
Sabriel by Garth Nix
The Forging of the Sword by Mark Robson

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

Adventures at Bath Kids Lit Fest

Over the last few weekends I have been making regular sojourns to Bath to attend a multitude of events as part of their Children’s Literature Festival (check out #bathkidslitfest on twitter). Here is a summary of the amazing events I went to, featuring some of my favourite authors. Thanks to everyone at Bath Festivals for putting together such an awesome programme – I only wish I could have attended more events! Here’s to next year being just as fabulous as this one.

 

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Unfortunately I haven’t got a picture with Marcus too – but he was there, honest!

Sally Green and Marcus Sedgwick

I had booked in to this event entirely to see Sally Green, whose debut novel Half Bad I read over the summer and subsequently raved about here on the blog. I’ve dipped in and out of Marcus Sedgwick books for years, and I find them a mixed bag, but I was looking forward to hear what he had to say. Both were very interesting panellists, with a good contrast between the two: after all, Green’s novel is her debut and Sedgwick has been writing for years. We opened with Sally Green (Marcus was stuck in traffic!) who talked all about the premise behind Half Bad and the main character, Nathan: “Once I had Nathan, the rest was easy”. The host, Gill McLay, asked lots of very good questions that opened the conversation right up, especially as we had such interesting yet contrasting authors.

The section of the panel dedicated to research was the one I found the most amusing and fascinating! Marcus Sedgwick told us all about when he went to visit derelict lunatic asylums in North America (now there’s a tale!) among various other things, and it was really interesting to hear about how he approaches research for books (“It’s much easier to do research than to actually write!”). Sally Green, on the other hand, said that she does considerably less work – about “ten minutes” on witch research, and the rest is filled in with imagination, and a little help from google! It was great to see how two different authors approach the process, but with equally successful results. The one particular part that stood out to me was when discussing the violence in their books. I’ve not read Marcus Sedgwick’s current book, The Ghosts of Heaven, but Half Bad certainly has some very harrowing scenes. But, as Marcus so fantastically put it: “If you have to plumb the depths of human badness, that’s what you do”, and Sally told us that you’ve “got to make it right, and make it believable and justifiable”. I’ve found, as a reader, that this is the case in their books and there are plenty of YA books that spring to mind that deal with this topic very well and make it really powerful in their stories. They then touched briefly on what YA means as a genre – something that David Almond, Mal Peet and Melvin Burgess are talking about at a panel here, on 5th October.

 

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Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie take questions, chaired by John McLay.

 

Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie

This panel was an absolute hoot, as well as being fantastically interesting. Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie entertained us without hesitation for at least an hour, whilst being interesting and insightful about writing for young people. One of the first topics of discussion was about starting as a writer. Garth Nix said “I think I started as a writer because I started as a reader” (something that I think can be easily forgotten by some), and Joe Abercrombie said it was because he had time [between his jobs as a freelance tv editor] and thought he’d better do something that “wasn’t 100% playing video games”, and that “what [he] was writing wasn’t nearly half as bad as he was expecting”. Apparently writing brings gaming down to a more conservative 90% of his time!

Both are established fantasy writers, and there were plenty of questions on the genre. Nix voiced his concerns over popular fantasy: “There was a phase of ‘all children’s fantasy should be like Harry Potter’, and now I think we’ve got the same thing with Game of Thrones”, and Abercrombie says that “the whole categorisation is about how it is sold, and nothing to do with the book at all”. This led on to some very interesting discussion (much like with Green and Sedgwick) about the category of YA. YA was described as “a subset of adult, not a subset of children” (GN) and Abercrombie said “I just wrote the books I wanted to read when I was fourteen or fifteen years old”. I found this really interesting as they considered where YA had come from, the prevalence of YA now, and the effect of trends. After all, Nix wrote Slade’s Children which is a dystopia novel – far before dystopia became popular! The general consensus was trends will come and go, and it’s hopeless to try and fit in with them – if you get lucky, you get lucky, something I agree with wholeheartedly! This went on to discuss the process of writing and we had readings from both authors. I am only gutted that Abercrombie’s book Half a King is currently only out in hardback, and so I couldn’t purchase it on the day. (Both space and money prevent me buying hardbacks now unless they are titles I have been desperate to get my hands on from my mental list of all-time favourite authors. I will, however, be getting my copy as soon as the paperback is released!) This was a very interesting panel and had us laughing all the way – thanks to Nix and Abercrombie. A great time! I also got an early copy of Clariel (squeeeee!) which I’ll review here just as soon as I’ve finished reading it!

 

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David Almond and Cornelia Funke responding to questions from the audience.

Cornelia Funke and David Almond

And oh my goodness me, how I wish there were more people in the world like Cornelia Funke. Her event with David Almond was simply superlative, and my personal highlight of everything I saw at the festival. I couldn’t type fast enough to note down all the brilliant, amazing things that were being said, and me and my friend who attended were lost for words at the end. (We mainly gawped at each other to express our general disbelief at all the awesome we had just heard). Personally I’ve only read Inkheart, but many of her others like Dragon Rider and Reckless have been on my to-read list for years – which says something about my to-read list! I absolutely adore Inkheart, and at today’s talk we were clearly in the presence of someone who values the importance of an amazing library – as well as every person in the room of course! There were so many things discussed, I’ll pick my highlights from the event:

“I went to the library and came back with piles of treasure”
Much time was rightly spent discussing the importance of libraries in helping young people become voracious readers. Cornelia Funke described her trips home from the library as above – as while they may not have had lots of books at home, they all went to the library regularly when she was growing up. A question later on asked Cornelia if this love of libraries and books meant that she was Maggie, the heroine of Inkheart – to which the reply was that writers all put parts of themselves in characters, and “I have that relationship with my father because he took me to the library all the time”. And of course there is nothing more magical than stories coming to life! As Funke put it: “There are so many vast realities in this world that you should explore as man of these as possible”. Who could disagree with that?!

“You cannot change the world? Yes you can! They just don’t want you to… because if you can, why didn’t they?”
I think this quote really neatly summed up the essence of what Cornelia brought across in her event. Time and again we came back to the idea of books opening up new worlds and opening our eyes, and showing us that things can be different, things might be different, and showing us how change can happen. Not didactically, but by encouraging readers to “listen more carefully” to the world around them. And, Funke argued, fantasy does this very well, as “it makes the world so much more meaningful and makes you understand… When you cannot imagine another world, you won’t change this one.” And what did she consider the role of writers to be in perhaps politically motivating young people? “We [writers] cannot be missionaries, so we have to ask the questions when the world around us pretends to know the answers”. I don’t think anyone could have wiped the beam off my face when I heard that!

“I have such a longing to own a dragon – I would even let go of the TARDIS for the dragon and that is saying something!”
This stemmed from an excellent audience question, which was if a spaceship were to arrive above the Guildhall and drop Cornelia on a desert island, what book would she bring with her? Her first response: “Well first of all, I would change the spaceship for a TARDIS, complete with the 11th Doctor!”, which went down a hit with kids and adults alike! (Her book of choice was The Once and Future King, by TH White, if you were wondering). This brought us on to where the idea for Dragon Rider came from. Apparently, from a dog! We were told that the white dragon on the cover looked suspiciously like a certain canine Cornelia owned… Needless to say I am now even more intrigued to begin Dragon Rider than before. She also read from Fearless, and her performance was excellent. There were different voices, different characters, all brought to life with her reading. I am very excited to pick up the first Mirrorworld book!

“Life should not always be happy, and life teaches us, in darkness, lessons… We [as writers] learn to make gold from the dark.”
Something that has cropped up time and again at events like this and when discussing where writers get their ideas from, and the opinion that writers must have had some kind of traumatic childhood to draw on ideas like this is one that has frequented Q&As. The opinion on this panel was that sadly some authors have experienced a trauma in their childhood, but this is by no means the majority of authors or indeed necessary to be able to write stories. Cornelia said that “there are pains in many moments that don’t have to be these ‘traumas’ and we have to learn to see them”. It was an interesting discussion about what ‘trauma’ implies and how this could possibly affect the writing process in different ways.

 

Overall,  I had a wonderful two weekends at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, and I look forward to other fantastic events like these in the future! While at the festival I also attended Now We Are Ten!, which I discuss over on my writing blog – check it out!

 

Sally Green is a debut YA author, whose novel Half Bad has been a fantastic hit with readers. She is currently working on the sequel, Half Wild.

Marcus Sedgwick is a seasoned writer of both YA and adult fiction. His latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, follows four separate characters from different eras of history. He is famous for novels such as My Sword Hand is Singing, The Foreshadowing, and The Book of Dead Days.

Garth Nix has written over 20 novels for young readers, including the popular Sabriel series. His latest book, Clariel, is a prequel to that series. He is currently working on another Old Kingdom book which takes place after the ending of Abhorsen.

Joe Abercrombie has largely written for adults, including books such as The First Law series. His latest series is written for YA readers. The first book, Half a King, is out now.

Cornelia Funke is a popular childrens/YA author, whose work includes the popular Inkheart series, books such as Dragon Rider and her current project, the Mirrorworld series. She was born and grew up in Germany but now lives in LA, when not travelling around the world.

David Almond is a writer of popular children’s books such as Skellig and My Name is Mina. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and Guest Artistic Director of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival.