Release Date: September 7, 2009
Read it in: 5 days
The Hook: With elegant, evocative prose and a cast of unforgettable characters, debut author Kristin Cashore creates a mesmerizing world, a death-defying adventure, and a heart-racing romance that will consume you, hold you captive, and leave you wanting more.
NOTE: There may be one or two spoilers here!
OK, so, first let me start off by saying that yes, overall, I did like this book, and it definitely satisfied my love of fantasy-adventure type stories (oh yeah, I am an LOTR nut). However, if you are basing it on "The Hook" above, which is also on the back cover of the book, prepare to be a little under-whelmed.
We all know that one of the key elements to an amazing fantasy novel is the ability of the author to create another world. The world created by Cashore, while slightly unimaginative and under-developed, was still believable and it does serve to form the backdrop to Graceling's fast-moving plot and engaging characters. However, I was left with a lot of questions about Katsa's world, since a lot of it seemed pretty vague and fuzzy. (What is the culture like? Is there a religion? What are the differences between the kingdoms? They all kind of seemed the same to me... What time period is this? It seems vaguely medieval, but then there are modern elements too...) Altogether, I thought that the structure of the world created by Cashore was kind of weak, so it is good that there is an intriguing plot and memorable characters to make up for this.
At first, this book was a little difficult to get into-- here I was, being introduced to a whole other world that includes SEVEN kingdoms-- that's a lot of names and places to remember! I actually kept a piece of paper with all the major kingdoms and characters written down so that I could keep tract of everything. And this leads me to another issue I had with Cashore's world-creation: she made up waayyy to many kingdoms, for a plot that only takes place in three of them-- it seemed pointless to have so many other places and names to remember when they didn't even have any significance to the plot. Luckily, once I got into the story the four "extra" kingdoms sort of disappear into the background, so it became a little easier to keep tract.
For the most part, I enjoyed the characters in Graceling. The main character is Katsa, a girl who is both strong to the point of being almost invincible, but also highly vulnerable and insecure with who she is. It's clear that Cashore wanted to have Katsa be a female protagonist who was fiercely independent while still having certain weaknesses that she has to confront throughout the story. In the beginning, I thought Katsa could be annoyingly immature at times, but it becomes clear as you read on that this is part of the story, and how she becomes just as strong in character as she is in physical power. By the end of the book, you can see that Katsa has matured to some extent- she isn't as selfish or stubborn. Her character is multi-dimensional and dynamic so that she ends up a different person from the one she starts at-- I always like to see this kind of character development in a story.
Po, the other main character, who becomes Katsa's good friend (and lover) is definitely a likable character, but I didn't completely understand his attraction to- or ability to so quickly tolerate- Katsa at first. Also, I think their relationship was a bit confusing, and the ending didn't bring me much further clarity-- do they wind up together? Do they just go their separate ways because Katsa is so free-spirited and independent? I was a little frustrated because I felt like their relationship never became something definite, and neither Katsa nor Po change enough by the end to have that relationship become something strong by the last few pages.
And call me old-fashioned, but I really wasn't a fan of Katsa being so against marriage. In the end, Katsa and Po are free to do whatever they want and one can leave the other if they want-- this kind of open relationship didn't really make true and lasting romance seem believable. I figured that after everything that they went through together, they would have reconsidered the idea of being together for good, but nope, I didn't get the satisfaction of seeing them live "happily ever after," darn it. Honestly, this level of "independence" verging on selfishness bothered me a lot as I was reading (And the aggressive strength of Katsa compared to the almost pathetic, laid-back weakness of Po came across as a bit "feminazi-ish"). Coincidentally, after I finished the book, I read one review on Amazon that actually put into words what I had been thinking all along- which is that the author seems to have a really delusional idea about feminism, relationships with men, and what it means to be a "strong and independent" female. I am a 26-year old woman, and in no way did I relate to Katsa's inability to form a committed relationship with Po.
While it is true that Cashore knows how to tell a story and engage her readers, the writing style got to be a little bland at certain points (SO MANY pages of trekking through the woods!) Don't get me wrong, I was definitely able to get caught up in the intrigue and mystery surrounding the kidnapping of Po's grandfather and the trail leading to the villain, but there were parts that dragged. And while there was an element of surprise that caught me off guard towards the end, I found the ending to be pretty anti-climactic-- the demise of the villain happens in like 2 paragraphs-- it's so quick, you almost miss it.
Cashore does her best to wrap up all the loose ends by the last few pages, but I am not sure I really liked how certain things turned out (Especially how Katsa and Po's relationship is sort of just left up in the air). After nearly 500 pages, I kind of hoped to feel a bit more satisfied with how things turned out.