Time for another reprint review. This is of the entirely splendid Young Adult-ish novel Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, and it first appeared in SFX magazine #179 (February 2009). I loved it for many of the same reasons I loved Ellen Kushner's The Privilege of the Sword - fun and very readable and a (non-heavy-handed) exploration of gendered power dynamics in a fantasy setting. Huzzah!
To most subjects of the Seven Kingdoms, the individuals known as the Graced might as well be the Cursed. Born with powers like super strength, lightning reflexes, mind reading, and marked out by their non-matching eyes, the Graced are viewed with greed by kings – who ruthlessly exploit their abilities – and superstitious fear by everyone else.
For much of her young life, Katsa has been the pet thug of her unpleasant royal uncle, King Randa. Graced with enormous strength and speed, trained for combat and little else, Katsa is sent out to bash heads and break fingers of lordlings and tradesmen who displease Randa. Sickened by her role, but too cowed to refuse, Katsa finds secret ways to undermine her uncle, and imagines escape.
Cashore’s prose is smooth and unobtrusive, combining the simpler language of a novel aimed primarily at teenagers with the quiet lilt of sentences that are short without being choppy. The plot is similarly pared down; this is always Katsa’s story, and enjoyably fast-paced it is too. But for all its lightness of tone, Graceling is not a simple novel. Indeed, it deals with some very difficult subject matter, notably an abusive parent whose Grace enables him to conceal the harm he does from others, preventing his victims from being believed. Its inevitable love story, moreover, is sweetly unconventional – and unabashedly feminist.
Katsa herself is a rich and appealing character: taciturn, reckless, loyal, and amusingly literal minded. Long years of others’ disgust have left her closed-off, convinced that she is nothing but a killer; but her few friendships are portrayed very fully, and the growth of her trust and self-esteem is the understated heart of the novel.
Post-Xena, Buffy, and a host of lesser imitators, an arse-kicking young woman would be unremarkable, but for two things. The first is that Katsa’s strength is never a solution in itself; she is effectively powerless unless she can use it as she chooses. The second is that Cashore never pretends that one woman who can fight back makes everything better, in a world where so much power rests in the hands of abusers, and so many girls have no means of defending themselves. Perhaps the most uplifting part of the tale is when Katsa begins to share her skills, as much as she can, with other young women, giving them the gift of self-reliance.
An immensely fun, good-hearted read.
Incidentally, consider this novel an object lesson in why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. The picture at the top of the post is the US edition (a dustjacket that, incidentally, wraps a small hardback of beautiful quality); the picture here comes from the UK cover, in which Our Heroine has apparently forgotten to dress for the weather. (The ground she's standing on doesn't look all that stable, either.) Luckily, she's had the foresight to pose with her back to the light, so that the details of her face don't interfere with her ability to be Everyfantasywoman (read: object).
Clearly the publisher was hoping to snag the supernatural romance/urban fantasy market; certainly no-one paid attention to the actual prose. There are so many ways I could rant about this, but my weary lack of surprise is hampering my rage. (See also this post, from a different publisher but reflecting, I suspect, much the same mindset, which just made me sad.) It's a kick in the teeth to see such a ballsy novel saddled with an objectifying and unrepresentative (and silly) cover as this; but it's par for the course, isn't it?
Still, had I not been sent Graceling for review, I would have taken it for urban fantasy and never given it a try; and that would have been a real shame.