Graceling: A novel in which promise and potential give way to pitfalls and poor development

Kristin Cashore. Graceling. New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

200px-Graceling_cover.pngGraceling has the most promising heroine yet encountered in Young Adult novels. With Katsa, Cashore has created a strong young woman with a power that has as yet only been attributed to male characters: strength, speed, and the ability to kill. Unfortunately, Cashore wastes her unparalleled heroine on a story with a meandering plot, under developed characters, and an unsatisfying conclusion.

Katsa lives in a world that is divided among several kingdoms, most of which are ruled by corrupt monarchs. In this world, some children are born "graced," that is to say they have a hyper developed ability to do something, whether it is baking cookies, swimming, or, in Katsa's case, killing. Gracelings are marked by having two different colored eyes, and in most kingdoms they are societal pariahs. In all of the kingdoms except Lienid, parents are required to send their graced children to the King or Queen to be at the monarch's disposal. Even in Katsa's world, however, Gracelings are seen as unnatural and often become societal pariahs.

Enter Katsa, the King of the Middluns' neice, orphaned, and graced with killing. Her corrupt uncle Randa uses her grace to force his subjects to do his bidding, however Katsa has a conscience and loathes herself for the work she is forced to do. At some point before the novel begins, Katsa (along with two other characters, Giddon and Oll) begins a secret society in which she and friends go about and right all of the corrupt kings' wrongs. It is on one of these missions that Katsa meets Poe, a graced fighter from Lienid who shows her the meaning of love, the importance of standing up for oneself, that the needs of family members (even if they are distant and you've never met them before) matter above everything else on the planet, and the joys of no-strings-attached sex. After Katsa meets Poe, she abandons her secret council of do-gooders to go on a sexually explicit quest to help his aunt and cousin escape from an evil king. In the end, Katsa saves the cousin, the evil king is defeated in a Jane Austen-style anticlimactic scene, Poe suffers inner turmoil from the loss of something that never really mattered in the first place, and Katsa and Poe live and fornicate together happily ever after in a cabin in the woods. One of the few redeeming qualities of the novel is that Katsa decides to go across the kingdoms and give fighting lessons to the disenfranchised young women of the realm.

Katsa begins as a strong and resilient character who defies gender roles and is true to herself, but unfortunately Katsa's feminism is not enough to save the rest of the novel. Upon first glance, the novel seems to be about an extraordinary yet misunderstood young woman who is dedicated to saving the world from corrupt leaders and helping the less fortunate. Going along those lines, one would think that the novel would center around this and eventually lead into a war between Katsa's good council and the evil kings' minions and be a story about how good ultimately triumphs over with a feminist twist. Instead, the plot ambles its way through various different scenarios to the point where the reader is never quite certain the direction in which it is going. The story itself is also very simple; the plot and activities of the protagonists gear this novel toward an older audience, however the simple active verbs, complete lack of symbolism and straightforward text make for a reading level that is closer to that of a seventh grader than that of a high schooler.

The characters in the novel leave something to be desired as well. While Katsa's physical abilities and moral code are flawless, there is a scene in which she undergoes an intense emotional maturation over the course of one night (she goes to bed immature, wakes up in the middle of the night with even less maturity, and then in the morning she has reached emotional maturation and has finally become a woman), which is just unrealistic. Giddon and Oll, two of the main characters in the beginning, are neglected throughout the middle and are tacked on at the end as an afterthought. These events, along with Poe's very uncharacteristic temper tantrum/mental breakdown in the end of the novel, indicate that perhaps Cashore should have studied a bit more psychology and made herself familiar with human behavior before writing this novel.

All in all, Graceling is an idea with a lot of potential that should have been better developed before Cashore turned it into a plot. If she had (like she initially implied) made the novel about a war of good versus evil with a feminist twist instead of a tale of an underpaid babysitter's reconnaissance mission with a little more writing complexity, she would have herself one of the greatest Young Adult novels of all time. Instead, she has a novel without a target demographic (content too graphic for tweens, writing too simple for teens) that is interesting but lacks significance. Graceling is a novel that should still be in one of its earliest draft forms instead of a final, waste of potential published copy.

Recommendations for Teachers
Graceling might be a bit difficult to teach in a classroom, simply because of the fact that it would be difficult to find a proper age to teach it to. There are more mature themes throughout the book that would be acceptable in a high school setting, but I believe that the language and the pace of the book would keep high school aged students from being terribly interested. A younger audience may be more interested in it, but some of the more graphic scenes may be a bit too much for their age group. Regardless, there are a few things that teachers could focus on if they'd like to give teaching the book a try:
  • Gender Roles: Katsa is a very promising heroine. Her ability, called "Grace" is, essentially, to kill. This is a skill (along with her speed and fighting capabilities) typically associated with men. Katsa, as the king's biggest threat to his subject, is feared by the people for her abilities and how she uses them to "persuade" anyone who disobeys the king. Something good to discuss in the classroom might be gender roles. How does Katsa's job, Grace, and skill set make her more of a masculine character? Does the book in its entirety do justice to the way she is written and presented in the beginning? What other heroines in other pieces of literature could she be compared to? Is she likable? What are her flaws? Perhaps students could write a character log, describing her, or choose to write a final essay on an analysis of Katsa.
  • Elements of the World: One of the most important things about a fantasy novel is the setup of the world which the author has created. This could be used for both younger and older audiences to help them better appreciate the setting. How does Graceling's world differ from other fantasy worlds? Is it convincing? (After all, while fantasy books are, of course, fantastical, it is important for them to also be believable to a certain extent. The author must do a spectacular job of convincing you that the world exists.) What are the important traits about the people or their powers that make the book unique?
  • Discerning Right from Wrong: Throughout the book, but especially in the beginning, Katsa is ordered to use her Grace to do the bidding of her uncle and "bully" the people of the kingdom into doing his bidding. For example, in Chapter Four, she is required to punish a man for taking more lumber than he was instructed, but instead of killing or torturing him, she simply accepts the money and knocks him out, thinking him brave. Situations like this could spur discussions about morality, right and wrong. Though it was Katsa's job, she still followed her own set of morals and made her own decisions. How can we properly follow our morals in our own lives? Wat are our own individual morals? Perhaps a more personal discussion, but an important one nonetheless.
  • Comparing/Contrasting: When I was reading the book, I was reminded of a fantasy novel I read circa seventh grade called The Edge on the Sword. It was one of my favorite novels at that age, and I'm still fond of it even though I'm too old to really appreciate the simplistic language anymore. If this book is taught to older students, one thing that may help to keep them interested is to encourage them to find similarities in fantasy books that they have read before. For example, how does the book compare to more classic fantasy reads such as The Lord of The Rings series? Both feature strong female characters throughout, but how are the characters presented differently?

About Kristin Cashore
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"The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we'd have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads."

Kristin Cashore uses this quote by William Styron as motivation for herself as a writer. In a bio about herself on her blog, she discusses how this quote doesn't apply to her. She is a quite content, "chucklehead," and is proud of it. Needless to say, Cashore is anything but a boring individual.

She spent her child hood in rural Pennsylvania as the second oldest of four sisters. She studied at Williams College for her bachelor's degree and received her master's degree at Simmons College in the Study of Children's Literature. According to her author biography in "Graceling", from which the picture is also taken, Cashore has worked a wide variety of jobs ranging from a dog runner and a packer in a candy factory to an editorial assistant, legal assistant, and a freelance writer. At the same time, she moved around the world, living in places such as Sydney, Australia, New York City, Boston, London, etc. However, she recently moved from Jacksonville, Florida, where one of her favorite past times is talking a long walk down the St. Johns River to count the many pelicans that swarm the docks, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Charles River has replaced the St. John's River, and instead of pelicans, she has geese to count. What she likes most about Massachusetts is having the four seasons back.

She began writing "Graceling", her debut novel, as the fulfillment of a childhood dream. As a young girl, she had the idea of a girl who had amazing powers, almost superhero powers. This daydream character later turned into Katsa,, and the subsequent male hero, was Poe, an unlikely friend, who, at times, seems to be totally unsuited for Katsa. Since this novel, she hasn't stopped writing and now has two more books in this series, "Fire" and "Bitterblue." Whether or not she keeps this series going or not, is not decided by her. She prefers to write wherever she is moved to, but, in the end, she plans to continue writing. As she says on her blog, "It's a dream job, which is another way of saying that when I shop for work clothes, I go straight to the pajamas section."

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

Below is a short trailer featuring the three books in Kristin Cashore's Graceling Trilogy.

In the above video, Cashore's fellow Young Adult fantasy author, Tamora Pierce, discusses Graceling and why she considers it as one of her favorite new YA novels. She also outlines the struggles Katsa has to endure, and, as such, some important themes in the novel. (Here is a link to Pierce's author page if you are interested in her works).

Additional Resources:
Here are some links that will take you to additional pages pertaining to the Graceling Realm trilogy, including the author. For more information about teaching young adult fantasy novels in the classroom, please go to our review of The Light and find the appropriate links in the Additional Resources section.
  • Enter the Graceling Realm - This link will take you to a page pertaining to all the pertinent information about Graceling, along with the other books in the trilogy, Fire and Bitterblue. There is also information about the author, Kristin Cashore.
  • Kristin Cashore's Blogspot - If you follow this link, you will be taken to the author's personal blog. She makes many interesting and humorous posts about everyday life, and about literature. There are also very helpful links on the side about Cashore and her writing experiences.
  • Cashore's Writing Process - This link is for anyone who enjoyed and appreciated Cashore's writing style. Here, she outlines her writing process and the different things she does before, during, and after writing. This would be a very good resource for teachers to use in their creative writing classes, to help students start their own writing processes and form their ideas more effectively.
  • GoodReads Review - Here is the GoodReads review. Many people have rated and reviewed it, so visiting this site will assist you if you're still deciding whether or not to read it. In addition, you can find many more YA novels similar to Graceling to read, too.
  • Graceling Realm Facebook Page - There is even a Graceling Realm Facebook page! If you like this page, you can get updates about the books and any events Kristin Cashore is doing, among many other things.
  • Kristin Cashore Abroad - Click here to see all the covers for all the different editions of her books and how many different languages they have been translated into.
  • What's Next? - Kristin Cashore explains in an interview what's next.
  • Buy It! - Take a look at Cashore's Amazon page.
  • Kindle Sampler - Take a sneak peak on your kindle, as well as read her follow up Council Member Letters, which are also available on her blog.

--Clarice Thorpe, Baige Bell, Ethan Mingerink, Jessica Sorgs (Our Review of The Light by D.J. Machale).