Graceling: Graced In Ideas, Not In Subtlety

Despite being a college graduate, I still consider myself a young adult; despite the legal status of an adult once you’ve passed age 21, and the higher-priced movie tickets that came before that, I doubt I’ll consider myself a true grown man until I’m 30 or so. As such, I still take an interest in “Young Adult” fiction from time to time, particularly books my sister reads that seem to have an interesting synopsis on the back.

While I read Twilight and its execrable sequels on a dare and concluded Young Adult romance is not worth reading, I picked up Kristin Cashore’s Graceling on my own interest, even though the novel wound up reinforcing my earlier conclusion anyway. But that is a matter we’ll get into later; I thought Graceling had an interesting premise, but suffered from some serious problems as well.

Evidently the first book in Cashore’s “Seven Kingdoms Trilogy”, Graceling is unsurprisingly set in a nameless continent of an unnamed world divided into seven kingdoms; five “bad” kings rule the lands of Nander, Sunder, Estill, Wester, and Middluns, each clearly named for North, South, East, West, and Middle as per their positions on the map. These Kings keep a delicate balance while vying for power amongst themselves, with Middluns being relatively neutral while Sunder acts at the behest of others, leaving Nander, Wester, and Estill to be the “usual suspects” when something goes wrong. The other two kingdoms are Monsea and Lienid, which we know little about at the outset; both are reputed to have much kinder kings than the other five, however. In all seven kingdoms, certain people are randomly born with a Grace, a unique skill they excel at beyond any normal human. The titular Gracelings are marked by having two differently colored eyes, and like most fictional individuals with amazing powers granted to them by accident of birth, are generally discriminated against and used as tools by the kings.

Graceling follows the adventures of one particular Graceling, Katsa of the Middluns. The King’s niece, Katsa has been Graced in killing since she was eight years old; recognizing the immense value of this talent, King Randa of the Middluns now uses his 15-year-old niece as an enforcer and an assassin to intimidate or execute people who cross him. Katsa, on the other hand, has decided she doesn’t WANT to kill anymore and is struggling to take control of her own life and unite with like-minded people to change the Seven Kingdoms for the better. The plot begins with Katsa and her group, known as the Council, rescuing an elderly Lienid noble from a prison in Sunder. In the process, Katsa runs into an odd Lienid boy Graced in fighting and knocks him out when he attempts to interfere in her rescue. On the return home, however, Katsa and the rest of the Council meet and note the peculiarity of the kidnapping; the elderly noble, like Lienid itself, had no enemies and wasn’t responsible for anything, making his kidnapping seem oddly nonsensical. Sunder’s lack of initiative in disrupting the balance of the kingdoms also suggests another culprit committed the kidnapping and simply used Sunder to hold the noble. Katsa decides this bears further investigation, starting with the three usual troublemakers. Katsa is soon joined in her search for the truth by the Lienid boy she fought before; the grandson of the kidnappped nobleman, Prince Po (not a panda) of Lienid’s royal family. The mystery leads the two on a journey across the Seven Kingdoms; a journey that not only reveals some surprising truths not only about the kingdoms themselves, but also about Katsa and Po (He’s not a panda! You’re not a panda!).

The premise of the book is interesting enough, but I felt Graceling fell short on several fronts. However, the most obvious fault in the book and the one that feeds nearly every other complaint I have about it is that it has no grasp of subtlety. Graceling’s plot and characters suffer heavily from the book’s incredibly obvious and heavy-handed execution of nearly every twist and turn of the journey. At many points in the book, one could easily observe a more subdued and understated performance from two cyborg grizzly bears having an electric guitar duel on the back of a rogue elephant as it crashes through your wall in search of peanuts. This works to the detriment of nearly everything Cashore focuses the book on, including the mystery that is central to the plot; the red herrings are so loudly and clearly displayed early into the story that of the seven kingdoms involved in the plot, an astute reader can narrow it down to two possible suspects by Chapter 12 out of 39 at the latest, and by Chapter 18, the book simply spells it out for the less astute reader. The clear and early designation of the seven kingdoms into categories as “troublemakers”, “neutral”, and “mysterious” makes it pretty easy to tell when the author is attempting to throw a surprise the reader’s way, rather killing the excitement of the mystery. Cashore unfortunately creates a trap for herself where the surprise culprit and the usual suspects being guilty are both obvious plot twists, meaning the resolution of the mystery about halfway into the book doesn’t seem very satisfying either way.

Another major problem in lack of subtlety or understatement is the way Graces are handled in the book; people with inborn superpowers being used as tools or discriminated against except in the “good” kingdom is a fairly common and decently realistic fantasy trope, but the way Graces function in this book seem a little over-the-top compared to other examples I’ve seen. It’s mentioned that there are various ways one can be Graced in fighting compared to Katsa’s Grace in killing, but the killing Grace is for the most part treated as an infinitely superior fighting Grace that makes Katsa basically unbeatable from Chapter 1, with Po (he is no Dragon Warrior!) being the only one who can sort of make her try hard because she’s holding back when they spar, and he still loses to her almost every time they do so. I feel like some subtle distinctions could have made the story far more interesting; Katsa uses her Grace as a superior fighting Grace because she doesn’t like killing people, but greater tension and conflict might have been available if a killing Grace was only useful for killing, creating real struggles and dilemmas for Katsa when the situation called for her to use her Grace as opposed to being able to simply defeat any opponent without killing them by holding back a little. As it is, the killing Grace comes with so many superfluous superpowers, such as night vision, flawless accuracy with any ranged weapon, little need for sleep, complete immunity to sickness, a natural sense of direction, and inhuman speed, that it’s little surprise when it turns out Katsa’s Grace is more complicated and more powerful than simply being a good killer. It’s because the Grace is treated in such an over-the-top manner that Graceling falls heavily into Superman Syndrome: meteorite strikes, natural disasters, and gigantic monsters are the only threat level against which Katsa has much tension, as even the next best warrior in the entire world is no threat to her at all. Tension and willing suspension of disbelief both suffer when Katsa faces down two hundred heavily armed trained soldiers and she and the reader are both aware she’s in no danger; despite being a fifteen year old girl with a Grace that doesn’t increase her physical strength, Katsa is a one-woman army that cannot be beaten in a fight, despite regularly going up against droves of heavily armed and armored soldiers, some of them Graced to be great fighters. Despite being willing to accept a 10 million lightyear tall giant robot made out of willpower fighting it out in theoretical space with another 10 million lightyear tall robot made out of despair, or a man who has been mostly dead all day bluffing his way through an entire castle full of guards with minimal help and intimidating an evil prince into complete surrender with a few well-chosen sentences and escaping with his new friends and his true love into the night, my suspension of disbelief suffers terribly when it’s mentioned how Katsa easily defeats “droves” of trained soldiers and knights, including the aforementioned scene where she knows 200 soldiers attacking her at once will end with only her leaving the room alive. For comparison, in The Two Towers, Gimli and Legolas, both seasoned warriors with the advantage of defending a fortress, killed roughly 84 orcs between them despite participating in a battle against an army of over 10,000 soldiers. When you make the hero or heroine of your story capable of downing 200 soldiers on their own without much problem, it kills the audience’s belief that anything can seriously threaten the hero outside of extremely contrived circumstances. This contributes hugely to the book’s incredibly anticlimactic final confrontation; it’s over literally the moment Katsa can focus enough to strike once.

However, despite my ranting about the Graces being glaringly too powerful to help maintain drama and the obvious execution of the plot, by far the biggest place Graceling’s crippling lack of subtlety comes back to haunt it is in the romance subplot, which has convinced me once and for all that “Young Adult” books cannot competently execute romance people that aren’t 13-year-old girls would want to read. The LA Times claims that Graceling “has a knee-weakening romance that easily rivals that of Twilight,” displayed proudly on the back cover.

Whoa, whoa, WHOA. Those are FIGHTING words, LA Times! The romance may be terrible, but that’s a seriously low blow, and disguised as praise, even!

I must assume for the sake of my own sanity that this comment was written dripping with sarcasm, as the only other explanation of such a quote is that Young Adult books are to be praised for having romance elements that remind readers in any way, shape, or form of Twilight. Since this would be akin to hearing your hospital declare that delicate eye surgery will now be performed with rusty chainsaws, my mind reels and rejects this idea at all costs.

Graceling’s romance is not like Twilight, to its eternal credit; there is no glorification of stalking, marrying young, teenage pregnancy, necrophilia, codependence, or raising infants to bear your children as there is in Twilight. No, the reason I gave up on YA romance forever after reading this book was because, like so much else, it is much too obvious. Overt. Blatant. Glaring. Broadcast with alarming volume from page thirteen. The inevitable romance between Katsa and Po (who would be 50% more awesome if he was a panda) is delivered with the subtlety of a bullet train made out of shotguns that shoot anvils and carrying a cargo of bricks smashing into your face guns a-blazing. Po (our battle shall not be legendary, the impostor) is the Love Interest. He is the Love Interest so hard it warps the universe around him. He is the Love Interest so hard that it kind of hurts to read before Katsa finally figures out she’s in love with him. Graceling’s romance is only knee-weakening in that the reader’s legs are tired from carrying the millstone of obvious romantic inevitability around their neck for the first half of the book.

All in all, I give Kristin Cashore’s Graceling a 4/10. The story has a decent premise, and it’s told competently enough, but there is very little about it that is exciting, new, or subtle, which makes it difficult to get that into what Katsa’s doing. The romance was simply annoying instead of heartwarming, but even though Po as not the awesome panda his name suggests, neither is he Edward in disguise. Graceling is rather weak, as many debut novels are, but it at least can rest assured that it is much better than anything Stephanie Meyer has ever written.

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