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  1. #1
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Graceling by Kristin Cashore: a decent new debut novel

    Just reviewed this book. I was trying very hard to avoid the word 'nice', because it always feels like it's word to use when you want to damn a book with faint praise. But this is indeed a very 'nice' book which I enjoyed reading and a nice contrast to some of the heavier books I've been reading recently.

    Graceling is the debut novel by American author Kristin Cashore. It is a stand-alone secondary world fantasy, although I'd hesitate to call it an epic fantasy. The writer is planning at least two more books set in the same world (the next one will be a prequel, called Fire), but Graceling is a single work mercifully lacking a cliffhanger ending. Interestingly, the American publishers are marketing it as a YA novel, although the British ones aren't.

    Seven kingdoms sit uneasily alongside one another, constantly raiding and counter-raiding one another. A secretive organisation known as the Council is helping the common people of the lands survive in these harsh times. Meanwhile, certain people in the world are born with extraordinary abilities called Graces. Someone with the Grace of swimming can hold their breath for huge amounts of time underwater and swim like a fish, whilst someone with the Grace of swordsmanship is a brilliantly talented warrior, able to predict an enemy's moves with stunning speed.

    Katsa, neice to King Randa of the Middluns, has the Grace of killing. She is the King's assassin, his enforcer and, when necessary, his torturer. She hates the role and yearns for a less violent existence. When her role in the Council leads her into a conspiracy over the kidnapping of the King of Lienid's father, she is forced into an uneasy alliance with Po, the Prince of Lienid, a Graced warrior of exemplery skill. The path they follow leads to startling discoveries over their own abilities, and their confrontation with someone whose Grace makes them almost unstoppable.

    For a debut novel, Graceling is well-written, nicely-structured and easy to read. The characters are well-drawn and the storyline intriguing enough to draw the reader along at a good speed. The notion of Graces, although not hugely original, is nonetheless explored in-depth throughout the book with some nice, logical extrapolations of the abilities on show.

    However, there are some issues. The names of the characters and kingdoms are all somewhat whimsical and occasionally distract from the seriousness of the tale. This wasn't a huge problem for me, but given that I know that some people pointblank refused to read The Red Wolf Conspiracy because of it, I know it will put some people off. Also, the ending feels a little bit too neat. True, the author throws a wrench into the final couple of chapters that was genuinely unexpected and means the ending is hardly all happiness and light, but still, all the storylines are tied off nicely. The only big unanswered question, the background and motivations of the main villain, will be explored in the next book.

    Balanced against these issues is a well-drawn tale featuring interesting protganosits in a decently-realised setting. Whilst Graceling won't be generating Rothfuss or Lynch levels of excitement for a debut novel, it's certainly enjoyable and well worth a read.

    Graceling ( ***-and-a-half ) will first be released by Gollancz in the UK as an export edition on 20 November 2008, followed by standard tradeback and hardcover releases on 22 January 2009 (by coincidence, my 30th birthday). The US edition will be published by Harcourt Books on 1 October 2008.

  2. #2
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    Hobbit just reviewed this last week.
    Quote Originally Posted by Hobbit's Review
    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.)

  3. #3
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Seriously, we're going to punk her on the names? This is what it's come down to, has it? We're going to have politically correct name codes now? They don't seem any worse to me than anyone else's.

    Her being thrust into YA in the States highlights a problem that has developed in the U.S. market. Having an assassin for the main character in a YA is, um, interesting.

    How does the author deal with a main character who is innately able to kill and forced to do it, as well as being of royal birth? What sort of person is Katsa?

  4. #4
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Well:

    Spoiler:
    Kiska leaves the King's service about ten minutes into the book, and from her flashbacks there's an indication that most of the people she tortured and killed were 'bad', although there's a few good people she definitely feels remorse over. However, none of these happen in much detail in the present-day storyline. Kiska spends most of the time feeling angry about being a killer simply because that's what her abilities are, but there is a cool twist later in the book when it is revealed her grace has been mis-identified.

  5. #5
    Lord of the Wild Hunt Mithfânion's Avatar
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    Seriously, we're going to punk her on the names? This is what it's come down to, has it? We're going to have politically correct name codes now? They don't seem any worse to me than anyone else's.
    The names are very simplistic and unappealing. There is nothing wrong with reviewers pointing that out. Since in Fantasy I often find that the quality and originality of the names used is indicative of quality of the books.

  6. #6
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mithfânion View Post
    The names are very simplistic and unappealing. There is nothing wrong with reviewers pointing that out. Since in Fantasy I often find that the quality and originality of the names used is indicative of quality of the books.
    Really? Sapkowski has some pretty stupid names and he's really good. Bakker's names may be internally logically consistent, but they are a bit clunky and they don't detract from his books at all. I also didn't find the Redick sufferered much from having some bad names, although lots of other people did.

    We could go into Erikson as well, but since I know you're not a fan that's probably not a good example.

  7. #7
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Mithfânion View Post
    The names are very simplistic and unappealing. There is nothing wrong with reviewers pointing that out. Since in Fantasy I often find that the quality and originality of the names used is indicative of quality of the books.
    I'm sure that those who regard "whimsical" names as a literary evil are deeply relieved to have been alerted. (Not that these names truly are; see Susannah Clarke for proper whimsey.) Whereas those who are sick and tired of the complicated D&D names in fantasy were no doubt delighted.

    Those of us who, however, prefer to assess novels on something other than the author's name selection, are seeking story information. Thank you for your elaboration Wert, but I was also interested in her personality, such as you assessed it. Also, what was the Prince like?

  8. #8
    Lord of the Wild Hunt Mithfânion's Avatar
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    Katsa? King Randa? Po the Prince?

    How much lamer and simplistic can your names get? This sounds totally run-of-the-mill.

    I don't see what this has to do with whimsical or a like or dislike of other books; on it's own it sounds very silly. And oftentimes that is an indicator of quality in my experience.

    Intelligent and unbiased readers who have the ability to read and pick up nuances will know that this is not the same as proclaiming a book a mishit in advance, it's just that the signs are poor and it doesn't invite me to read it.

    Also, what was the Prince like?
    Prince Po, right? Or his younger brother, Prince Pipi?

  9. #9
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    I see, so if he was called Grisheand'real the Prince, that's better? Or John Stormbreaker and his sword Blackknife? Judah Low? Which conformist, formulaic, acceptably gravitas fantasy name should he have?

    Whimsical came from the reviews, not from me. And it was raised as a main complaint about the book, not simply a poor sign, which it isn't in any case for most people. Indeed, it wasn't for Wert, but he raised it because he knew others may gripe. You may get your indicators from such things, but I don't, and so I am after other information about the story. I like the concept of someone who has had to kill from what seems her own nature and is then fighting against it. I'd like to know more about how that worked.

    So, the Prince, with the super sword skills, (and I don't care if his name is Po Broodypants, though with the Asian aspect to his first name, perhaps that is unlikely,) what's he like?

    And Wert, is tying up all the ends a preference tick you have, or did you feel that it really didn't work well for this particular story?

  10. #10
    Lord of the Wild Hunt Mithfânion's Avatar
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    Which conformist, formulaic, acceptably gravitas fantasy name should he have?
    Something that sounds like someone actually put some thought into it. Something that doesn't scream Young Adult. Or adult but self published. Something that indicates here is a world worth visiting and that I'd like to see more of. Something that sounds like Fantasy rather than something you'd think up in grammar school.

    Look, if names have no meaning for you then names like this are fine. If you expect a bit more, like I do, then it's not particularly alluring.

  11. #11
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    As it was my review that seems to have caused a commotion, I'll qualify a few points.

    1) The names were an annoyance to me and I thought that it was right to say so. If they were annoyances to me then they may be off-putting to others, as Mith has said they could be for him. Sometimes the names just don't work for individuals, even in Fantasy where you have to suspend your disbelief. If they don't work, then that might detract from the reader's enjoyment. And yes, despite what you say, it may be a cultural thing: what works in the US or the UK doesn't always work elsewhere. It was a point that struck a dischord for me on this occasion.

    It is interesting that Wert has also pointed that out in his review: I hadn't read his review before writing mine, but it seems to be something that he is at least aware of, even if he hasn't reacted in the same way as I have.

    2) Having said that, I also pointed out that many elements of the books that I thought did work, and that if you could get around the issue that I had, there was a lot to enjoy:

    It is a book that will appeal to a Young Adult audience, though not exclusively so.
    nicely paced....engagingly romantic
    ...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.
    As for story selection, that's been covered:

    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. 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 Bitterblue from her evil father King Leck and creating world peace and harmony.
    There is a always a balance between giving the story away and reviewing; I felt that further details would spoil the story for those who would enjoy it. To be fair, I think Kristin has put a great deal of thought into her story, and such names may not be an issue for her nor other readers. But as I felt it was for me, it would be unfair for me not to point out my personal misgivings.

    For those of who who wish to assess the book on things other than names, Kat, the choice is simple: buy the book.

    Mark / Hobbit
    Last edited by Hobbit; September 23rd, 2008 at 02:41 PM.
    Mark

  12. #12
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    Not related to Graceling, but the names issue, character names can be problematic. For example, the only thing that bothers me about Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy is the name of the protagonist, Vin. While in general a character's name won't make or break the story, it can be a part of why I do (or don't) like a specific book & writer.

  13. #13
    The name Pug from Fiests books always bugged me. Now, I have yet to read this debut novel, so I can make no real comment on the content of the book itself, but some of the names given from this book would also bother me as well. They just seem... lame. Would they make me stop reading the book? Doubtful, but it would be a minor grievance.

    My two zeni.

  14. #14
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    How do you know she didn't put any thought into it, Mith? That's an awfully big assumption to make just because you didn't like the names. You say they are simplistic, which is a debatable point as they seem to me to be very pointed, and you say they are therefore YA, which is also a debatable point. Further, you state that such names indicate to you inferior quality, which implies that you regard all YA fiction or anything resembling YA fiction (screams YA) as inferior. Therefore, your assessment of a novel that is being sold as YA as having YA names and consequently being inferior, whether you've read a work or not, is not particularly persuasive. Nor is it a very good argument for the idea that names are a good method of assessment that reviewers should endorse for both adult and YA fiction.

    The name Katsa has an Eastern European feel to it and her uncle's name follows the phonetic pattern. The names Greening Grandemalion, (which is a great name,) Tealiff, and Bitterblue are directed. They are fairy names and clearly have a symbolic rationale to them.

    I would still like not plot information, but character information. I don't see why stating whether Katsa is fiesty, witty and angry or depressed, shy and angry in her self-loathing is such a big deal or will give away the story. Apparently, it is of less import than what she is called, and of less import than that she has a love interest.

    This information, though, might help me decide if I want to read the work. Since what I've got here are two lukewarm reviews that seem disappointed the book is not more like Scott Lynch's work, a little more info for those of us who don't mind that sort of thing might be good. If you can do it, great, if not, thank you for reviewing the book.

  15. #15
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    I never qualitively compared the book to Scott Lynch. I merely said it wasn't generating the same kind of pre-release coverage, and that seems to be the case.

    And Wert, is tying up all the ends a preference tick you have, or did you feel that it really didn't work well for this particular story?
    I think with stories that are trying to be true-to-life or gritty or more realistic, than having open-ended storylines is fine. However, Graceling is more akin to a fairy tale and thus having most things tied up is more satisfying. There is one large element that isn't (the villain's backstory), and that is what is providing the basis for the prequel.

    Oh yeah, and Katsa has moments of self-loathing but much greater disgust for other people, the King in particular. She's quite angry for most of the story, but calms down later on. She has a strong sense of what is right and wrong, which when combined with her uncle's orders often creates conflict and angst.

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