The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

There But For The Grace (review of Graceling by Kirsten Kashore)

Kristin Cashore
Gollancz 2009

In a continent dissected into seven Kingdoms, the Lady Katsa is an oddity in a world of such oddities.  The society in which she lives is separated into those Graced with particular skills and those not, yet those Graced are by no means favoured.  Those born with an extreme talent are identified by mismatching eyes and distrusted by those who do not share their abilities.  While largely tolerated, though tightly controlled, the Gracelings are feared and none more than Katsa.  For while others may be Graced with cooking, or mathematics, or music, Katsa is Graced with killing.  A distant member of a royal family she has been used since an early age as a trained assassin yet when a chance encounter brings her into contact with one who seems to match her skill, she finds herself wondering if there is a life for her other than that of blood and killing.  Drawn into a mysterious and seemingly unmotivated kidnap, the isolated Katsa finds herself living a life she has previously left determinedly unlived.

Katsa is an extraordinary character. Used by her uncle, a King, and treated by his court as little more than a restrained savage, she is somewhat unsocialised.  Unused to kindness, she reacts to any with suspicion and holds herself away from all but a very few who try to befriend her.  At the heart of her self-imposed isolation is a deep-seated hatred of her Grace – she believes herself, in a way, to be the savage than many assume she is.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, she has created the Council, a small group garnered from all seven Kingdoms, working against the tyranny of many of the Kings in charge.  This work brings her into contact with Po, another Graceling, who seems fascinated by her and slowly encourages her to not only face her Grace but to also embrace it for what it truly is.  Her very nature makes Katsa sometimes a hard character to like, yet her stubborn attitude and wry humour will warm readers to her and have them cheering while watching her fight the corners of the tyrannised.

Po at first seems more straightforward.  Born to privilege in a land where Gracelings are revered, his life has certainly been easier than Katsa’s but he too has his secrets.  Like Katsa, he seems to seek a degree of isolation yet is clearly drawn to her in ways that he cannot understand.  His ability to draw her out of herself is amazingly attractive and their slow-burning friendship never less than compelling.  As Po’s character develops and his secrets are unearthed he becomes fascinating – at once arrogant and loquacious while also being deeply instrospective.  Of a fairly wide supporting cast, the young princess Bitterblue absolutely steals the show.  A rather unnerving child, her stoicism and dry asides will have readers wishing she was in the book for longer.  She, more than any other character, brings out a side of Katsa that would seem unimaginable on meeting either character initially – yet one that never compromises their individual voices.

The storyline of Graceling is quite complicated, involving kidnap, betrayal, misinformation and a lot of travelling.  It is, by far, one of the most compelling fantasy stories out there and Cashore ably combines all of the above with detailed and extremely visual world building.  Particularly well written are the sections that contain Leck and throughout the book Cashore builds a sense of unease that finally climaxes in a nail-biting finale.  Cashore’s writing is exceptional – from quiet moments in dense forests to a, quite frankly, stunning journey over a mountain pass it is nothing less than excellent throughout.

High fantasy is a hard genre to get right.  Too often sharp plots get bogged down in tedious detail, endless history and pointless exposition, yet Graceling avoids all of the genre’s pitfalls to rise as an exceptional book.  Easily in the ranks of Melina Marchetta’s stunning Finnikin of the Rock, readers should be flocking to pick this up in their droves – if they haven’t already.  With long awaited sequel Bitterblue now available, pick up Graceling and immerse yourself in a beautifully written world.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird.  Graceling (not to mention Bitterblue and companion novel Fire) is available in bookstores now.
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