Graceling: Teen Romance with Swords
Graceling is Kristin Cashore’s debut novel. To judge from her continued success, as well as that of the book itself, it’s quite popular. This reviewer is just slightly puzzled as to why, which probably speaks a few volumes about his shaky grasp on what apparently makes a good YA novel.
Katsa, the story’s central character, is a young enforcer. She works for the bullying King Randa, terrifying his opponents, and torturing or killing them if necessary. Despite her age, she’s an accomplished killer, thanks to her preternatural powers, known collectively as her Grace, the story’s central conceit.
Quite a number of people in Katsa’s world are Graced. It makes their eyes change color, and it gives them some special power, ranging from the harmless (a Graced cook) all the way up to Katsa herself, and Gracelings with similarly potent skills such as mind reading.
Though packaged as YA fantasy, the story is probably best understood as teen romance. It’s moderately steamy as well, so parents whose kids are “reading up” may want to know that it contains fairly direct accounts of first sexual contact (and continued contact as well). The book is a very easy read, so while the great majority of it is likely fine for eight-year olds, these few scenes do differentiate it in that regard.
Katsa’s under Randa’s thumb, but she doesn’t like it. She’s created a shadow organization, the Council, designed to work against the bullying might of the world’s seven kings. While on a mission for the Council, she meets a young man with a Grace nearly as strong as her own. Before long, their paths cross again, and soon she’s struggling with her feelings, as the saying goes, and romance ensues as the two of them work to unravel the plot that first brought them together.
The characters and world-building are, well, rudimentary. They’re workmanlike, not bungled, but very modest. There’s a lot to be said for not trying to do too much. The fact that the story works despite the almost generic nature of the fantasy trapping shows that the real engine of the story lies elsewhere.
Where the story is clever, and diverting, is in the main characters and their Graces. Katsa has been raised to believe her Grace is simply killing things. But the nature of a Grace can be subtle, and as the story unfolds, we see a few clues that killing may be just one aspect of her unique strength. Likewise her counterpart, Po, seems to be a Graced fighter. But the nature of his Grace is elusive as well, and unfolds with the story.
If you’re looking for a rich fantasy world, this story may not be the place to go. What you have instead is a well-executed romance between teens with special powers. The author’s written two more novels in the same series.