Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I had initially thought that when I started discussing young adult literature I'd have to alter my approach: not swear so much, embrace idioms the intended audience would find desirable, adjust to a younger reading mind that might not be so quick to call shenanigans or identify what I would perceive as a flaw in other fiction.  I couldn't have been more wrong and Graceling is proof.  Just as I do with every other book I love, I get to rip Graceling to shreds while telling you why it's awesome.  It seems that's just my way. 

Graceling is exactly the kind of secondary world fantasy that I've been trying to get away from for the past two years, but it seems my self-imposed literary masochism has great foresight: before I could walk away from fantasy I had to explore every facet and I had yet to land of young adult fiction.  It's a good thing I did as I found the adventure, fun, and the pure escapism that has eluded me in so much of the fantasy I've put myself through in the past two years. 

Katsa has a Grace.  A Grace is a rare and unique ability very few people possess.  Some are practical such as an exceptional ability to cook.  Other are virtually useless like being able to hold one's breath for an inordinate amount of time.  Katsa's Grace is the ability to fight.  She is The Archangel Michael, Diomedes, and Superman wrapped into a small mass of teenaged insecurity, and identity.  She is used by the King, her uncle, to do his more unpleasant tasks when he feels the need to assert his authority.  She grows up under a cloak of self-pity doing horrible things at the King's bidding until she meets Po, who has a similar Grace as she, and she starts to recognize that she, and not her uncle, is in control of her actions. 

Growth is the primary theme and the focus is given solely to Katsa as Po is worlds more mature.  Development of their respective Grace is also subtly established and initially I was disturbed that no one noticed Katsa's Grace extends far past her ability to fight and that Po, while undeveloped, is just shy of an all knowing God.

While she can issue 'The Hurt' to just about anything under the sun, Katsa's not too bright.  She's so self-absorbed that she doesn't have the slightest sense of awareness to the people around her or her environment.  I think she kicked something on every page for the first half of the book.  She throws her hands up in frustration; a lot.  In the span of two pages Po vomited a ocean's worth of fluid; it never stopped, he never dry heaved, he continued to spew water enough to end a desert drought.  Repetitious issues aside, Katsa is immune to hypothermia; that was the only issue that taxed my belief.  She has the strangest views on marriage--captivity, chains, subjugation--and, what I saw (as a shameless thirty-two year old male of questionable integrity) as an inexplicable angst concerning a possible hook-up/friend with benefits.

It's amazing how subdued the plot is considering how wrapped up in the novel one becomes.  It's really really sparse.  There are political conflicts, a pseudo-ground, home grown network of do gooders, but there never seems to be that one driving force that compels the reader forward yet still the pages fly by.  Over time we do learn of a man with a Grace too easy to not abuse: all those who hear him speak fall under his control.  One does as he commands, it becomes interesting as we see that even Katsa would be useless against such a Grace. 

There are some questionable scenarios that arise and considering the book's stubborn linear progression (and in conjunction with the true nature of Po's Grace) I can't help but feel the book should have been written in first person.  Katsa is that strong of a character and unfortunately every single second of everything that happens revolves around her.  Another issue for the cause of first person is that Cashore excels at the intimate moments, or perhaps that's more of what I enjoyed than then broader picture.

Last gripe (I swear!).  The contraceptive plant... that didn't feel right--you know me, I could go on, but I'll leave it at that--but it sure felt convenient as Katsa not only never wants to marry (I loved the ending resolution to this matter) but also doesn't want children.  It was subtle and gently thrown out there; much like Bann, Prince Raffin's bff, and the nature of their relationship.  The book is more socially aware of at least a couple of contemporary issues than I was expecting.    

There's a Jane Eyre moment at the end that made me all kinds of mad until I realized that I got exactly what I wanted Po's grace to truly be.  Sorry, I know that's vague but I don't do spoilers.  Read the book, then report back with your thanks.     

Overthrow the mad king and save the land.  Strong independent female heroine curbstomps everything in sight, justice is restored and de facto but bittersweet 'happily ever after' mind set comes together at the end: the cliches are there if you wanna look for them.  Only they are buried under so much narrative and character development and not feed to the reader by way of exposition as to stand out.  (And yes, strong female heroines are officially as cliched as their male counterparts.  Maybe more so...)

Cashore, and I'm inclined to think all young adult writers of her quality, defy every preconceived expectation that my mind settled on when I think 'Young Adult Fiction.'  It's not light and fluffy, the sun isn't always shinning, nor is it filled with so much angst as to make me want to cut myself.  There is a story and characters.  Reality and drama.  Conflict, suffering, resolution and in the end clarity and understanding.  Isn't that what makes any work of fiction good? 

I didn't so much read this book as I lived it over the course of three days that it took me to finish.  I loved every word and while I'm pretty sure it's not the best book I've read this year it is without doubt my favorite.  Last time I felt this strongly; this good about a book that I wanted to force it in people's hands was after reading The Magicians.  I bought publisher's remainders at Barnes and Noble, and Books-A-Million by the numbers divisible by ten.  Literally.  Birthday gifts, holidays, 'Hey how ya doing presents,' I was pimping out Grossman's book like a... okay I won't finish that thought.  It didn't work.  I lack the ability to make someone read what gets me hot and bothered.  That said, I don't think my past failure will stop me from trying again with Graceling

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