Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Published by Gollancz (UK), January 2009 (ARC copy received); Harcourt Children's Books (US), Oct 2008
ISBN: 978-0575084506 (UK); 9780152063962(US)
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
It is often the case that one of the fundamental ideas of Fantasy novels is that they deal with the human condition and how people adapt or die trying. Thus we have tales that tell of rites of passage, the physical and mental maturity of young people into adulthood, poor farm-boys (usually boys rather than girls) with a destiny to be masters of the universe and so on. I’m sure you can think of your own examples, but let’s pick on some of the genre staples for starters: try Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, Raymond Feist’s Magician / Riftwar series, Tad Williams’ Dragonbone Chair and David Eddings’ Belgariad series.
Kristin Cashore’s debut novel reads very much like that: a good page turner, a pleasingly entertaining and well written High Fantasy. It is nicely paced, fairly well developed and engagingly romantic. Unfortunately, the writer’s obvious talent and skill are let down by lapses in judgement, as it also has some of the most annoying, if not inopportune, names created for a Fantasy novel I have recently come across. (And there are a lot of bad ones out there.)
In this world people, either at birth or later in life can develop a Grace – a skill at which they are exceptional. Men and women, girls and boys show this development by suddenly having their eyes change to different colours (my immediate impression was that of David Bowie) and them showing an aptitude for cooking or swimming or breaking in animals. Or, in the case of our lead character here, killing.
Katsa became an assassin at the age of eight. Employed (or perhaps indentured) by her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns, her responsibility now, as a teenager, is to remove difficulties (or at least make negotiations easier) for her uncle. Her life is filled with annoying diametric opposites: she is pampered yet reviled, essential yet feared in her life at court. The Graced are, especially at court, seen as a lower order of society. Essential yet often ignored, their position creates for Katsa a very lonely life. Katsa despises her Grace and is afraid of her own skills, full of self-loathing and anger.
To this then arrives our hero, Prince Greening Grandemalion, otherwise known as Po. (Yes, yes, I know. In the UK, that name has unfortunate connotations. In Britain, a po is a name for a chamberpot; secondly, Po is a Teletubby.) Prince from another realm (albeit a lowly one in a crowded monarchic hierarchy), he is on a mission - to keep hidden his recently kidnapped (but rescued by Katsa on Randa’s orders) grandfather, Prince Tealiff, and discover who kidnapped him and for what reason. On the way he coincidentally steals Katsa’s heart and together they go to resolve the main plot – saving Princess Butterball – sorry, Bitterblue - from her evil father King Leck and creating world peace and harmony.
As my flippant summary may suggest, this is a tale which sets out its stall pretty obviously from the start. It is the tale of an outsider made good, of a young female adult becoming a wiser independent adult woman, with successful relationships and a fairly happy ending (though not all is resolved.) There is a plot resolution that makes the reader feel fairly good, (though a plot twist just before it) even when you know what’s going to happen. Sometimes knowing what will happen can make their unfolding all the sweeter.
With its limited sex content (though it is there) and no controversial language, this is a perhaps a return to older traditional values and stands a little aside from the currently ‘hot’ must-reads. We are not talking Joe Abercrombie here, more Anne McCaffrey. There are many that will find this new, and I suspect will enjoy it enormously.
It is a book that will appeal to a Young Adult audience, though not exclusively so.
On the downside, there are things here that may annoy more experienced readers, even if they can get by my issue with names. Katsa is, by turn, all-powerful (if not in places superhuman) yet naïve, blinkered in her world-view yet at other times annoyingly knowing. This may be to emphasise character flaws, or indeed to highlight the often-conflicting emotions of a teenager, but I suspect that some will find it amusing whereas others will find it irritating.
If I was trying to look for comparisons with other authors (not always a good thing, admittedly) then I think fans of Stephenie Meyer, Trudi Canavan and Karen Miller will like this one. To my mind, Kristin’s dialogue is better than Miller’s but the characters, like Meyer’s and Miller’s, can be engaging and the plot moves along quite nicely, rather like a Canavan novel. It is not as lyrical as, say, Jacqueline Carey’s books, nor as dark, but like Stephenie Meyer’s it will leave many readers with a warm fuzzy feeling that belies its predictability. What unfolds is not particularly original, but it is told in such a straightforward way that I suspect it will win many readers over. It’s a great debut novel that will suit those who like their Fantasy unabashedly romantic. And despite my personal reservations over nomenclature, there will be many who will grow to like and love this book.
Mark Yon, September 2008
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