In this dazzling whirlwind of a debut novel, Kristin Cashore has proven she can span what is essentially a long travel narrative with interest and excitement. Occasionally in a generation a boy or girl will be born with a unique power or ability – known as a Grace. Greatly desired and tightly controlled by many lords of the Seven Kingdoms, a Grace lives a life of being used in order for their Lord to gain power and mastery over others. Katsa is just one such Grace, born with the ability to kill at a whim. She is a battle-hardened, callous-hearted girl accustomed to a life of doing the dirty work of her Lord, King Randa. But when she rescues an elderly man who knows something of a vile plot, she is forced to finally break free of her servitude and travel across the Seven Kingdoms with the man’s grandson in hopes of unraveling the mystery.
Generally speaking, from the moment I picked up the book I was riveted. The prose is solid enough, and we are injected into seeing the world through Katsa’s eyes from the first page. She is a captivating protagonist, a girl who had steeled herself against her own actions, used as she has been by her King, but there is also a deep vulnerability. There is pain and regret over what she has been forced to do, and she feels helpless and trapped in her situation despite being a powerful warrior. In particular she does not trust men (she has vowed never to marry – because it makes her too dependent on another person), and the whole book is really her transformation, growing from a girl who is trapped and trusts no one into a girl who is free and is struggling to learn to trust. This much we are clearly told – it gets a bit murkier when we actually deal with her transformation. This growth is present and visible, but her trust only comes at being forced to trust by their desperate circumstances. As soon as the danger is over, she goes right back to not trusting (and reiterates her determination never to marry). This short circuits the parallelistic transformation a bit, dulls its point. Also, we are repeatedly told that she is a merciless killer trapped into doing murder for her uncle. The difficulty with this is that we never see any of this side of her at all. The book opens with a scene where she’s defied her uncles orders and secretly rescuing an old man. The only other times we see her executing her uncle’s will is when she is ordered to torture one of his rivals – which she refuses to do on grounds of violating her conscience. In short, she is set up to rebel from the beginning and is in this way not given as powerful of a transformation as she could have had. Ann Acquire’s recent Enclave does a better job of providing a full arc for her character, moving her from being totally invested in the rules of her enclave into full out defiance against them. This transformation is slow as she gradually comes to realize how bad the enclave’s rules are.
The other difficulty I had with Graceling was the middling portion when Katsa and a boy named Po travel across the Seven Kingdoms. This is easily the longest stretch of the book, and it drags a lot. The first problem is that they are by themselves in the woods for at least a hundred pages, with nothing to do but talk and walk, sleep, and then talk and walk some more. This section of the book is obviously important because it establishes the romance between the two of them, but there was nothing else for them to do. Talk, walk, eat and sleep, for a hundred pages, and angst out about Katsa’s trust issues. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had a lengthy forest sequence as well, but the characters were doing things and talking to other people. They had a mission; Katsa and Po are just trying to get from point A to point B. And the relationship stuff and endless angstifying drove me crazy and fidgety. It felt forced and unnatural in a lot of places in ways highly reminiscent of the middle hundreds of pages from Twilight. Just kill me now.
But the book wasn’t all bad. Most of the book is really quite compelling. Once Katsa and Po find the princess Bitterblue, the book is a race to the finish that kept me up all night. Despite a slow middle portion, the book overcomes its difficulties and has a very satisfying climax and ending. The villain is compelling and menacing because he is never really seen. We encounter him in only two scenes, but they give us a powerful impression of him. We know him through rumor and mystery, like the shark in Jaws, which is more terrifying for never seeing the animal until the very end.