Monday, 1 September 2008

‘Graceling’ – Kristin Cashore (Gollancz)


You know that feeling you get when you’re faced with something that you know could just as easily be awful as it could be brilliant...? Well, that’s exactly the feeling I had when I read the back of ‘Graceling’ (an advance copy) and saw that the blurb said this book would be “Perfect for fans of Patrick Rothfuss and Trudi Canavan”. I loved ‘The Name of the Wind’, and am eagerly awaiting ‘Wise Man’s Fear’, but can’t say the same about anything of Trudi Canavan’s that I’ve read... You might enjoy her stuff but I haven’t, that’s the nicest way to put it.
So I was faced with a book that could conceivably be either one of those books that stayed in my head forever or a book that I would end up slogging my way through and not really enjoying at all. Funnily enough (and perhaps not surprisingly) it ended up being a little bit of both...

In the world that Cashore presents to us; being born with two different coloured eyes (or having them change once you’re older) is the sign of being ‘Graced’, possessing an almost superhuman skill that makes Graced people both feared and exploited by others. Katsa’s life is far worse than other Graced people as, since the age of eight, her Grace has been one of killing. Apart from a few close friends, the populace fear her and the King uses her skills to keep his nobles in check. A mystery is brewing though and, with the help of a Graced fighter, this will help to push her out of the clutches of the King and into a new world where she can be her own woman. Why would anyone kidnap the elderly father of the King of Liend? The answer lies in the shadowy figure of a one eyed king...

‘Graceling’ is a strange mixture of things that I just cannot stand about fantasy whilst, at the same time, being another one of those books where (despite myself) I seem to find myself turning the pages and genuinely wanting to know how it ends...

Katsa’s character seemed specifically designed to annoy me as she just seemed too good to be true, so good in fact that her inner dialogue came across more as sulking (that things were ‘just not fair’) than attempting to explore the issues created by her situation. While her situation had kept her in a very childlike state sulking just isn’t attractive, especially when she has a group of friends telling her how great she is. I just wanted to tell her to grow up a bit although, having said that, ‘Graceling’ is being marketed as a ‘coming of age’ story so maybe that was part of the point...
For someone who doesn’t know much about the ways of the world (other than to break bits off it) it didn’t feel right that Katsa was able to set up a ‘Secret Council’, under the King’s nose, and keep it running so that the ordinary people had their shot at happiness as well as the rich. This is a woman who has no control over her own life so I found it hard to accept that she could have that degree of control over other people.
At times it felt like she was carrying a sign that said ‘I need the love of a good man to help me cope with my horrible life’, especially when Cashore made numerous mention of the King trying to marry Katsa off to men who were not suitable. Sure enough, the ‘right man’ turns up and things start to move towards their inevitable conclusion but it felt a little contrived from where I was sitting (I personally wanted to see Katsa married off to some ugly old man who turned out to have a heart of gold just so she could learn that looks aren’t everything).
To be fair though, Katsa’s character does develop over the course of the story to the point where she is bearable if not actually likeable. ‘Graceling’ is the beginning of a trilogy so it would be interesting to see where she goes next in terms of this development.

A real bugbear of mine, in fantasy literature, is names that blatantly look like they were cobbled together at random off a Scrabble board. I don’t mind if all the names in a book are like this (at least it’s consistent) but when it’s a mixture of ‘decent sounding’ names and names that... well... aren’t then that bugs me even more. It’s like only doing half a job!
While ‘Katsa’ is a quite a cool name and ‘Randa’ (the King) just about passes muster I have real trouble getting into a book where I’m giggling at names like ‘Po’ and ‘Tealiff’. That’s just me though and it may be that any other reader wouldn’t have a problem with names like these (I doubt it though).

Despite all of this, the funny thing was that (after a rocky start) I ended up really getting into what was going on and although I wasn’t speeding through the book the plan was always to find out how it ended.
The story flows at a decent pace with a story that gradually builds in intensity and a mystery that unravels at just the right speed to keep things interesting. Cashore knows what makes a good spectacle and, even though you know that Katsa absolutely has to win through, writes set piece scenes that buzz with excitement and action. Cashore has a decent eye for a good villain as well although it’s a shame that we don’t see much of him as I think that he could have really spiced things up a bit...

‘Graceling’ is one of those books that I can doing really well as it’s got a lot of stuff going on that will appeal to a lot of people. It didn’t really do the trick for me though, it kept me reading but it also kept me feeling frustrated and occasionally staring out of the window at passing birds...
I’d be interested to see what happens next but I can’t see it becoming a priority series in the ‘to be read’ pile...

Six and a Half out of Ten

4 comments:

Dave-Brendon de Burgh said...

Hey Graeme, we'll be getting in Graceling soon in SA, so I'll give it a read. :-) Great, honest review, btw. :-)

Loops said...

I had the same reaction to it when I read it. I have a slight hope that the author will grow as will the character in the next coming books. But I guess we'll just have to see about that.

xalwaysdreamx said...

I just finished reading it myself, and I think you've hit the nail on the head! I'm going to link your review to mind because you did such a thorough job of pinpointing exactly what was making me feel torn about this book, too.

--Sharry

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I wasn't the only one who thought her names were so completely ridiculous...seriously, I almost stopped reading when I discovered the names of the kingdoms -- Nander, Sunder, Estil, Wester. I did not think that any writer willing to do something that juvenile would be able to hold my interest...but it did, mostly 'til the end. And you're right, Fire is far superior as a book, though it was initially difficult to relate to a character whose major complaints revolve around the horror of her physical beauty.