“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
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