Graceling Realm, Book 1; published in 2008; 471 pages. ★★★☆☆
A monster that refused, sometimes, to behave like a monster. When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?
Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight – she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.
When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.
She never expects to become Po’s friend.
She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace – or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…
Graceling is a reread for me, but one that still managed to be better than I expected. It was a sensation in the teen library group I was a part of in high school, in no small part because Cashore’s protagonist, Katsa, is a sharp contrast to Bella Swan. It wasn’t until years later, long after I had read both Graceling and its companion, Fire, that I encountered criticism of Katsa as a Strong Female Character whose strength derives from being as masculine as possible. Returning to the series with the intent to finally read Bitterblue, book 3, I expected Graceling to be cringe-worthy, didactic, and ham-handed. And I did find myself cringing – but not about Katsa. In fact, I found Katsa’s psychology and development to be the most nuanced part of the book.
This was Kristin Cashore’s debut novel, and that shows through most clearly in the worldbuilding. It’s simplistic, sometimes painfully so, with kingdoms named after cardinal directions and cities just… named after their kings. So you end up with things like the Kingdom of Wester, ruled by King Birn from the capital, Birn City, with trade out of a port city called (what else?) Westport. The setting isn’t particularly important to the narrative, but as window dressing it actually draws attention to itself by being so basic. The toponyms were almost painful to read. Additionally, all the kings behaved essentially the same way, and I found myself wondering why Cashore bothered to include them if they weren’t really individuals in any meaningful way.
The thing is, though, that if you can push past that and Cashore’s straightforward, even blunt prose, she’s done an absolutely marvelous job with Katsa’s characterization.
Through her, and through the main characters of Fire as well from what I remember, she’s asking one question: what makes a monster? Is it the ability to kill, which Katsa has? Is mind-reading a monstrous trait, an unforgivable invasion? Is the child of a monstrous person fated to be a monster as well?
And tellingly, with Katsa, Cashore examines this question from the point of view of an abuse victim.
I think this went over my head the first time I read Graceling, but I was paying attention this time through and it’s so, so clear that Katsa’s uncle Randa is emotionally abusing her so that he can control her:
And here was where Randa was clever. This was how he’d kept her a caged animal for so long. He knew the words to make her feel stupid and brutish and turn her into a dog.
Randa reinforces the idea that Katsa isn’t like normal people, that she can’t have normal friendships or relationships. He’s been telling her since she was young that she’s nothing more than a weapon:
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.
Randa’s deliberate destruction of Katsa’s self-esteem feeds directly into how she relates to her Grace. She’s completely internalized the ideas he repeats: that she is inherently savage and dangerous, good only to be used. When she struggles to define her own path, she’s struggling against exactly that:
She knew her nature. She would recognize it if she came face-to-face with it. It would be a blue-eyed, green-eyed monster, wolflike and snarling. A vicious beast that struck out at friends in uncontrollable anger, a killer that offered itself as the vessel of the king’s fury.
But then, it was a strange monster, for beneath its exterior it was frightened and sickened by its own violence. It chastised itself for its savagery. And sometimes it had no heart for violence and rebelled against it utterly.
Her struggle for self-discovery is catalyzed by Po, a stranger who can match her in a fight and who is never afraid of her. He’s the first person Katsa can trust, and the first person who forms an impression of her based more on her than on the rumors of the court. Through Po, she learns to see herself, and it makes their friendship and eventual romance compelling. It’s hampered somewhat by Cashore’s telling-over-showing prose style, and doesn’t feel quite plausible in how they move from friends to lovers, but they’re clearly good for each other.
As an asexual alloromantic person (ie: I want romance, but not sex with it) Katsa’s struggle to reconcile wanting a relationship with Po but not marriage really resonated. Because of the environment in which she’s been raised, Katsa sees marriage and children as an obligation attached to any kind of romantic or sexual relationship. It’s the price of admission, something she would obligate herself to whether she really wanted it or not… which is also how I thought about sex for a long time. Katsa’s struggle to establish a new path, her path, struck a chord in me, as did the way Po never even questioned her declaration that she would never marry or bear children.
On the whole, Katsa is an impressively nuanced character. Her character arc is a pretty fundamental coming-of-age story: as she reaches adulthood, she seeks to define herself rather than to let others define her. Admittedly, she’s not very feminine, but then again – neither are a lot of women in the real world, and that’s been true for centuries! She rejects trappings of femininity, because to her they are tied to social demands (the aforementioned marriage and children). At no point does the narrative suggest she’s somehow better or worse than other women for not being feminine; she’s just Katsa. And almost every way she distances herself from ‘womanhood’ is rooted in her low self-esteem and Randa’s influence on her life, beating her down and belittling her at every opportunity.
Admittedly, Graceling does lack in other female characters whose treatment can be compared to Katsa. (Fire and Bitterblue provide a larger sample size, but I haven’t finished rereading/reading those yet.) This is definitely a weakness, and may have significantly contributed to the idea that Cashore was presenting all strength as masculine. It’s also a microcosm, of sorts, of what made Katsa the target of so much backlash: people were looking at her as a sole example. There’s a difference between saying “this is what a strong female character looks like” and “this is what a strong female character can look like”. In the wake of Twilight, especially as disillusionment started to spread through its target audience, I think a lot of us (including me) swung too far on an ideological pendulum. Instead of asking for complex female characters, we wanted active ones, and in a lot of cases that meant kicking ass just like the men. When, in turn, people started to realize how reductive a view of female strength this was, Graceling became the poster child for Strong Female Character Gone Wrong… and its actual nuances and subtleties are lost.
If the central question Graceling asks is “what makes a monster?”, then its answer seems to be that monstrosity means taking away the choices of others. Coercion, abuse, force, careless destruction: all of these are hallmarks of the book’s antagonists. They’re the ones who try to steer the actions of people around them, to shape them into some particular idea of what they should be. Indeed, it seems to me that Katsa herself would be the first to champion the idea that there is no one ‘right’ way to live your life, regardless of gender.