Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Graceling (book) by Kristin Cashore

I can't emphasize enough how much I loved this book - once I started it, I could barely put it down even to sleep, and once I finished it I read it again. I got this book via ILL, but it's now on my "To Buy" list. It reminded me of all the things I loved about writers like Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley when I was younger.

Synopsis:

In the world of this book, some children, although they are born looking like every other child, eventually become Gracelings, with each of their eyes settling into a different color. Gracelings can be quite useful, but they are feared nonetheless, and Katsa is feared more than most. Her Grace revealed itself when she was barely 8 years old and accidentally killed a cousin of hers whose attention made her uncomfortable. Some might have had her, a girl Graced with killing, put to death, but her uncle, King Randa, thought she might have some sort of future use. It was Katsa's best friend, Prince Raffin, who suggested that she ask Oll, King Randa's spymaster, to teach her how to fight with precision and control. Once her control became such that there was no longer any risk of her accidentally killing someone she did not mean to kill, Randa decided to employ her as his bully, sending her out any time he wished to punish someone he disliked or who did not do as he asked.

By the time Katsa is sixteen, she is known far and wide for what she does on Randa's orders. She grows tired of hurting people who don't deserve it, and she grows tired of seeing what the kings of the neighboring lands do to their people. She feels powerless to do anything out in the open, so she decides to start a secret council that sends out people like her to right wrongs perpetrated by the kings.

It is as a representative of the Council that Katsa travels to King Murgon's dungeons and helps free Prince Tealiff, the elderly father of the Lienid king. She has no idea why anyone would kidnap the man, since there seems to be no possible motive. She kills no one while freeing him, not even the strange Lienid Graced with fighting that she encounters. Later on, she learns that the Lienid is Prince Tealiff's grandson, Prince Greening, called Po. After deciding to trust him and show him that his grandfather is safe, Katsa and Po become good friends - for the first time ever, Katsa has found someone who can mostly hold his own against her in a fight.

Several things come to a head, however. One, Katsa finally refuses to carry out one of Randa's orders. Two, Katsa refuses an offer of marriage. Three, Katsa finds out that Po's Grace is not what she thought it was - he is Graced with knowing what others' thoughts are when they think about him or something to do with him. This, as far as Katsa is concerned, is a great betrayal. She no longer wants to be around Po, but, upon finding out that he plans to leave in order to further investigate his grandfather's kidnapping, she also realizes she doesn't want to not be around him. In the end, the situation with Randa and her refusal of the marriage offer prompts Katsa to leave with Po.

Po gradually convinces Katsa to trust him again, mainly by demonstrating to her the abilities and limits of his Grace. Katsa eventually realizes that she loves Po, something that deeply upsets her because she still has no plans to ever marry. Torn between heartbreak and marriage, which she fears will chain her down and change her in some fundamental way, Katsa doesn't know what to do, but then Po introduces a third option: they can be together without being married. This never even entered Katsa's mind, especially since Po is a prince, but it's the option they end up going with.

Meanwhile, Katsa and Po have come to the conclusion that King Leck of Monsea is the most likely candidate for having arranged Po's grandfather's kidnapping. It seems like an impossible thought, because King Leck is known for being kind to children and animals, but there are aspects of the king's personal history that seem suspicious. Also, Po doesn't believe the story that the Queen of Monsea is so heartbroken by the news of Prince Tealiff's kidnapping that she has locked herself and her daughter in her room - the Queen is a relative of Po's, and he knows she wouldn't behave this way.

The truth turns out to be particularly awful. King Leck has the Grace of making others believe his words, a Grace so powerful that, when people repeat his words to other people, those people believe his words as well. The only one not affected is Po, who is apparently protected by his Grace. Unfortunately, Katsa is not so lucky. When Po and Katsa come across the Queen of Monsea, running for her life from King Leck and his men, Katsa believes King Leck's lies, even after the Queen is killed. Po manages to get Katsa away, and the two go searching for Bitterblue, the Queen's daughter. It takes a while for Bitterblue to trust them, but, once she realizes that their goal is the kill the king, she eventually does.

Because Po is immune to King Leck's Grace, he volunteers to kill the king single-handedly, even though Leck is well-protected and Katsa is the better fighter. Unfortunately, Po fails and is badly hurt, so badly hurt that he eventually convinces Katsa to leave him behind and take Bitterblue to safety. Although Katsa leaves him with food, shelter, and a place to hide, Po's physical condition makes it doubtful that he will survive on his own.

Katsa journeys across frozen, deadly mountains with Bitterblue - no one has ever survived crossing them before, so Katsa figures that no one would guess they'd travel this way. Katsa has since discovered that her Grace is not one of killing, but rather one of survival, so she figures she should be able to keep both herself and Bitterblue alive with her Grace. It's a grueling trip, freezing cold, with neither of them properly outfitted. Katsa survives a mountain lion attack, makes protective clothing for Bitterblue, finds food for them both, and pushes her endurance to the limits. Even Katsa is almost killed, but she survives, and Katsa and Bitterblue finally find people who are able to help them.

They even find a ship that can take them to Po's homeland, where Katsa hopes she can find allies against King Leck and keep Bitterblue safe. Once on the ship, Katsa discovers that the ring Po left with her, so that his people would know to help her, is actually the ring of his identity - most Leinid never give this ring away, and those who do only do so if they know they are dying and would like a particular person to inherit something of theirs. Po's island and everything he owns is now Katsa's, but all Katsa wants is for Po to be safe. However, her current concern is Bitterblue's safety, so she takes Bitterblue to Po's island - where she discovers that King Leck has already arrived and convinced Po's entire family to do as he says.

King Leck would have won, in the end, if he hadn't started to give away Po's secret, the true nature of his Grace, which no one knows except Katsa and his mother. Katsa's body moves on its own to save Po, and she kills Leck before he can reveal Po's Grace to everyone. Katsa, who values her personal control, is shaken by what she has done, but she does her best to move beyond this, so that she can travel with several members of Po's family in order to find Po and get Bitterblue safely to her coronation.

Po, as it turns out, is safe, but different. He is now blind, something he is able to compensate for with his Grace, but he needs to be able to do this without revealing the truth of his Grace. Katsa helps him, just as she helps him out of the bleak mood his condition has put him in. Po's Grace has steadily gotten stronger, to the point where all the information he can't help but recieve is overwhelming, but eventually he learns to accept his Grace and finds that he can live with it just fine. The plan, then, is for Po to go back to his home - but Katsa wants to travel to Monsea to teach the women and girls there how to fight. Po and Katsa will both go their own ways, but, in the end, they'll be together.

Commentary:

I have a fondness for pseudo-historical fantasy - you know, fantasy set in a world that feels a little like some kind of European past, but not. So, I automatically tend to like this kind of stuff. However, two things about this book really grabbed me. The first was Katsa. The second, the romance between Katsa and Po.

When I first heard about this book, I thought it sounded potentially cheesy - I mean, aren't these Graced people really just people who are particularly talented in something? I still don't think it's the most interesting idea to base a whole world on, but it turned out to not be as bad as I feared. From what I can tell, Graces are talents, but they're like talents supercharged by magic. For instance, a person in our world might be talented at survival, but no amount of talent could help someone survive the way Katsa managed to. Katsa was absolutely awesome.

Seriously, even if there had been no romance in this book, I probably still would have loved it, just because I loved Katsa so much. If I had read this book when I was a teen, I probably would have wanted to be Katsa's friend, and maybe kick butt like her, too. She's so tough that it takes climbing a nearly vertical surface while carrying a guy who weighs at least as much as she does to make her tired. When she gets attacked by a mountain lion and comes out of the experience with a dead lion to butcher and a few wounds, she's happy to have the meat and fur and annoyed, just annoyed, that the wounds might slow her down a little. Yeah, she's tough and totally awesome.

And how great is it that Po doesn't even mind that Katsa could wipe the floor with him if she decided not to hold back any? Well, maybe not by the end of the book - I think he might be a bit better at fighting than her by the end of the book - but I still think it's great that he never had a moment when his manly pride needed soothing.

That leads me to the second thing I really liked about this book: the romance between Katsa and Po. This is romance where the girl doesn't need the guy to save her, the guy doesn't mind that the girl is stronger than he is, and both characters have their own strengths and weaknesses and can use them to support each other. How great is that? Plus, when Katsa has her freak-outs about marriage, instead of giving her an ultimatum or trying to gradually talk her into marriage, Po just says, "Ok, you don't want to get married, we don't have to get married. We'll just be together as long as you want us to be together." That's some serious low pressure romance.

That last bit was also something I didn't really like about the book. While I was happy that Katsa wasn't presented as an emotionally weak and silly character whose only reason for not wanting to marry was that she didn't realize how good marriage could be, I kind of felt bad for Po. You see, even though I don't like it when a female main character is eventually convinced by other characters that all the things she initially desired or feared at the beginning of the book were wrong, I don't really want the guy to have to cave on everything either. In this book, the direction of Po and Katsa's relationship was entirely determined by Katsa - faced with the prospect of their relationship ending before it could even really start, Po decided to just cave and do whatever Katsa wants in their relationship. This just made me...sad.

Another thing I didn't really like about the book: the names. Granted, this is a general problem that applies to a lot of books in the "pseudo-historical" category. Authors, trying to come up with pseudo-historical-and-yet-still-fantasy names, end up with names that are odd or just a bit silly. "Katsa" is ok, I guess, although the name made me instantly connect her with cats. "Greening" becomes stranger/sillier when you consider that all his sibling are also named after colors (which is maybe not so strange when you consider what celebrities in Hollywood have named their children). I had trouble with "Bitterblue," because I could not imagine a mother who actually liked her child giving her that name. It's an unpleasant-sounding name, and I kept expecting unpleasant behavior from that character because of it. Finally, the big one: "Po." "Po." I think that name must have been a dare. As in, "I dare you to give your romantic male lead a name that can make your readers helpless with laughter, and then I dare you to make him sexy." And so she did, because, holy smokes, Po is sexy.

Overall, I highly recommend this book, and I'm definitely going to read more of Cashore's stuff. Except, darn it, Cashore hasn't published much yet, just one other book as far as I can tell. Well, that's depressing. Fortunately for you, you can try out the stuff in my read-alikes and watch-alikes list. Unfortunately for me, I've seen and read everything on this list already, so it doesn't do me a lot of good.

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • First Test (book) by Tamora Pierce - (Another YA book) I haven't read everything by Tamora Pierce yet, but I've read this book several times. This book is the first in a series focusing on Keladry, a girl determined to become the first female knight since the rules were changed to allow female knights and pages. This series is part of a larger series that takes place in the kingdom of Tortall. If you liked Katsa, you'll probably like Kel, another strong, quiet type who wants to help others, can kick boys' butts, and doesn't have marriage as her ultimate goal. The series (Kel's series) as a whole has a bit of romance, but don't expect there to be a similar sexy Po-type character.
  • Moribito (anime TV series); Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit (book) by Nahoko Uehashi - (the book is considered YA) The book and the anime are a bit different, but the overall story is the same in both: Balsa, a spear-wielding female bodyguard, is hired to protect a young prince who is possessed by a spirit that will either bring about a terrible drought with its birth or with its death. If you liked Katsa, you may like Balsa, who is also kick-butt awesome. If your favorite part in Cashore's book was the time Katsa spent trying to keep Bitterblue alive, you may like this (and I would suggest choosing the anime instead of the book, because the anime focuses much more on the "keep the prince alive" portion of the story than the book does).
  • The Blue Sword (book) by Robin McKinley - (YA book) It's been so long since I read The Hero and the Crown, the prequel to The Blue Sword, that I can't remember if that one would be a better read-alike suggestion. However, I much prefer The Blue Sword and try to reread it at least once every couple years (in fact, I need to get a new copy, because mine is getting fragile), so I can at least say that I personally love and recommend this one. If you were drawn by Katsa's fighting skills, the uncomfortable lives of Gracelings, and/or the romance between Katsa and Po, you may like this one. In the beginning of the book, the main character has recently been orphaned and sent to live with a brother she barely knows at a remote military outpost. She is kidnapped by Corlath, the king of the local people, and taught to ride a war horse and fight, so that she can hopefully beat back the inhuman enemies that threaten both her own people and King Corlath's. Ok, so I know I said I recommended this to those who liked the romance between Katsa and Po, but don't expect too much - there is romance, yes, but nothing big happens until nearly the end of the story. I've found that I love the romance in this one more during my rereadings than I did when I first read it, because I can anticipate what will happen and go all fangirly over the slightest signs of developing romance. Plus, Corlath is great. He could be Po's stern and serious older brother or something.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series); The Twelve Kingdoms, Vol.1: Sea of Shadow (book) by Fuyumi Ono - This one's another pseudo-historical series with a tough heroine (or at least she becomes tough, eventually) who needs to learn to soften up a bit and let others in her life. Which she does. The anime series focuses on this particular heroine, Yoko, as much as possible, while the books have different main characters depending on which book you're reading. The first book focuses on Yoko, the second on a character named Taiki, who finds out that he's a kirin, while the third focuses on the King of En and his kirin Enki, nearly 500 years before the events of the first book in the series. If you, too, thought Katsa was kick-butt awesome, I recommend trying either the anime or the books. Both the anime and books may be a bit of a slog at first - I didn't start to like Yoko until several episodes into the anime and well into that first book, but, if you can stick with either or both of them, you'll be rewarded.
  • Assassin's Apprentice (book) by Robin Hobb - It's been a very long time since I last read this. I remember hardly being able to put this one down, although I never did read any other books in the series. This book focuses on a young boy, a royal bastard (by which I mean "the bastard son of a prince"), who is taught the skills of an assassin from an early age. The main character, Fitz, is a sympathetic one, and those who felt for Katsa and the inner pain she had to endure as King Randa's dog might like him.

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