- Author: Kristin Cashore
- Publisher: Harcourt
- Published Date: 2008
Graceling is one of those books I had heard about in passing from many people on BookTube. They would haul the author’s newest series, The Conquerer’s Saga, and mention how much they loved her Graceling trilogy. Needless to say, I went into the book blind, not knowing what to expect.
Graceling follows a girl named Katsa who was born with a Killing Grace. She can kill a person with the barest flick of her finger. She operates, essentially, as the royal assassin under the king. Her eyes are two different, yet stunning, colors — as are all Gracelings’ eyes.
On a secret mission, Katsa rescues an old man imprisoned in another kingdom. As she is leaving, she encounters a boy clad in gold, just like the old man she is rescuing. They are from the same kingdom. Not only that, but soon Katsa learns the boy, named Po, is the grandson of the old man and the son of his king.
Someone, some king in all of the kingdoms, has tried to dispose of this old man for whatever reason. Katsa and Po must work together to discover who initiated his capture and stop him. Along the way, Katsa learns things about her Grace and about the world around her.
plot & world-building
The plot kicks off pretty much automatically. There isn’t much buildup, and it works well. Something that I appreciated was how the reveals all felt natural. I could think back to earlier in the novel and see how things added up. Nothing felt forced. There is a romance. However, it doesn’t truly become one until near the very end. We see the relationship grow from strangers to friends, to more…gradually throughout as the story progresses.
Where I think the story suffered the most was with pacing. We start off with action, with Katsa rescuing Po’s grandfather. And then we’re given what’s essentially an entire info-dump world-building chapter. I’ll admit it was interesting to learn about the world itself. But the way it was done felt forced at times. There are other times we learn about the world through characters’ conversations, thoughts, flashbacks, etc. that felt much more natural. For example, we constantly see how people avoid looking at a Graceling’s eyes — not just Katsa’s. These simple moments help more than entire encyclopedic chapters in my opinion.
I also think the resolution was a bit too long and didn’t feel like it fit in with the rest of the story. The main plot has essentially been wrapped up, but there’s still the barest threads of a subplot to explore. Personally, I think it would’ve worked better as a tie-in short story. It does wrap things up in terms of the characters. Nevertheless, it’s a loose end I think could have remained while still keeping the book a standalone.
I liked the two main characters. I thought Katsa was a great character. She was annoying, brazen, hardworking, and confident. We constantly see her training in order to more perfectly hone her Grace. I like how this also implies that other Gracelings (such as tree-climbing, archery, weather-watching, etc.) must also train and practice in order to grow their Graces. Katsa can be pretty aloof about certain things as well, but her focus is unwavering at the best of times.
Po is also a good character in my opinion. He is irrational yet tries to be level-headed most of the time. He has a kind heart. However, he doesn’t let his kindness blind him. He is Graced with Fighting, but we see him train with Katsa. Essentially, he and Katsa are well rounded characters.
All that said, I felt like they were missing something. I personally don’t have a problem when I can’t connect to a character. However, for those who do like to connect to characters, Katsa and Po just didn’t have that going for them (for me at least). They were fleshed out, but they seemed trapped in their own story. That is, I felt they were more controlled by the story and lacked a feeling of realness. They were great characters for the book — just not ones I could imagine in real life.
The minor characters were largely forgettable in my eyes, unfortunately. Oftentimes, they were just there and seemed more to serve the purpose of furthering the plot or Katsa’s/Po’s character development — rather than having any agency of their own. The minor characters weren’t necessarily poorly written. They simply weren’t as developed as they could’ve been.
Is this novel for everyone? Simply put, no. I personally very much enjoyed reading it. The things that worked for me really worked. I thought the plot overall took interesting twists weren’t thrown in for dramatic effect. The magic system and its focus on the eyes was also a big plus. (Side note: The magic system is roughly similar to the one in Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld series in that some of the Graces can include relatively mundane things like climbing a tree or being able to speak backwards. Not every gift is a flashy one.) I also just generally enjoyed reading the book.
The faults I found were not enough to warrant dislike. On the other hand, they might deter others. The writing itself is good but not great. You can see how with time and practice, it can be something special. But Graceling is more about the plot than the writing. It is a strong debut that will resonate with some readers but not with others — simply depending on what you look for in novels. This was my first Cashore book, and I look forward to reading more by her to see how she grows as a writer.