The above scene from Kristin Cashore's debut novel, Graceling, underscores many of the tensions that Cashore explores throughout this book via the experiences of Katsa. Katsa is blessed (cursed?) with a preternatural ability called a Grace. Marked by mismatched eye colors, Gracelings have a mysterious ability to be great at a particular task, whether it be sailing, swimming, craftwork, fighting, or any other talent great or small. They are feared in most parts of Cashore's world precisely because of this mystery; who wants to confront the unknown?
The physical needs that limited other people did not limit her. The things from which other people suffered did not touch her. She knew instinctively how to live and thrive in the wilderness.
And she could kill anyone. At the slightest threat to her survival.
Katsa sat on the ground suddenly.
Could her Grace be survival?
The instant she asked it, she denied it. She was just a killer, had always been just a killer. She'd killed a cousin, in plain view of Randa's court - a man who wouldn't have hurt her, not really. She'd murdered him, without a thought, without hesitation - just as she'd very nearly murdered her uncle.
But she hadn't murdered her uncle. She'd found a way to avoid it and stay alive.
And she hadn't meant for that cousin to die. She'd been a child, her Grace unformed. She hadn't lashed out to kill him; she'd only lashed out to protect herself, to protect herself from his touch. She'd forgotten this, somewhere along the line, when the people of the court had begun to shy away from her and Randa had begun to use her skill for his own purposes, and call her his child killer.
Her Grace was not killing. Her Grace was survival.
She laughed then. For it was almost like saying her Grace was life; and of course, that was ridiculous (pp. 252-253).
Katsa's life is much rougher than most other Gracelings because despite being born a noblewoman (and chaffing against that station's expected duties), her Grace appears at first to be that of killing. Her uncle, the king, is a rather devious and malicious character who devises ways of using his niece's fighting/killing abilities to extort money or torture from those who displease him. This creates an interesting tension between the character as she views herself and those who judge her based on actions she is forced to inflict upon others. Cashore does a good job at first of having this lurk in the background, but ultimately this gets swept into a larger conflict, that between her and a new arrival, a fellow Graceling named Prince Po, who is in search of his kidnapped grandfather.
Much of the latter two-thirds of Graceling is taken up with the interactions between the two. At first glance, there appears to be occurring the common pattern of A) Feisty female meets introspective male youth, B) The two grow to like each other, but the feelings are hidden from their conscious views, C) A revelation occurs that causes a hurt that is more deep than it ought to be, D) Despite this revelation or perhaps because of it, the two fall in love. However, Cashore does some interesting things within this dynamic. Katsa, both before and during her time with Po, expresses both to herself and to others her refusal to settle down and to assume traditional domestic responsibilities. This expressed desire not to marry ever is no casual comment spoken out of fear or ignorance of the world around, but rather is presented (but without too much harping upon it) as a conscious, informed dissent against the expectations of her (our?) society.
Furthermore, as the plot unfolds over the final third of the novel, Cashore undermines even more the underlying expectations. Po, despite his growing abilities, is not the strong one in this tale. It is Katsa, who despite her own weaknesses and hesitancy, who assumes the leading role in their relationship, which Cashore takes pains to present as being a voluntary one devoid of any bonds other than the ones Katsa and Po choose. It is an interesting, often subtle inversion of romance tropes, one that, when combined with Cashore's clear, crisp prose, made for a mostly enjoyable read.
There were some problems with the pacing towards the end of the book, however. The introduction of the Princess Bitterblue could have been done better; it was quite obvious that Cashore left this character mostly unformed since Bitterblue will be the titular character for a future book set in this world. The subplot involving her didn't contain the same depth of emotional feeling as did the earlier Katsa and Po come to know one another plot element. At times, Cashore seemed to be hesitant about how much coverage she should give to the main villain of this book, as his presence was sporadic and too short-lived for what Cashore seemed to design.
Despite these flaws in her debut novel, I believe Cashore has managed to write a very readable, subtle, intriguing text that leaves me curious as to what her future novels will contain. Young Adult literature sometimes is dismissed as containing facile plots, cardboard characteristics, and vapid writing that fails to engage readers, particularly those over the age of 18. Such charges, while sometimes appropriate, certainly should not apply to Graceling. This novel contains enough action scenes to suit many, while balancing it with nuanced characters whose paths of self-exploration by means of their understanding of their gifted abilities makes for a story that is more complex than what any surface analysis could demonstrate. Recommended.
Publication Date: October 1, 2008 (US). Hardcover.