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Graceling
Kristin Cashore
Harcourt, 472 pages

Graceling
Kristin Cashore
Kristin Cashore has written for The Horn Book Guide, The Looking Glass: An Online Children's Literature Journal, and Children's Literature in Education. She received a master's degree in children's literature from Simmons College. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Graceling is her first novel.

Kristin Cashore Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Graceling

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

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Graceling is Kristin Cashore's debut novel, and what a debut it has been so far -- this has been one of those books that has been gathering buzz as it rolls along until it has reached the point that it somehow inevitably pops up in any discussion on the topic of YA literature. It managed to make it into New York Times Review of Books, and received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Booklist, not to speak of the notoriously hard-to-please Kirkus Reviews; it won, was a finalist in, or was nominated for a slew of industry, critical, readers' and bloggers' "best of" lists and awards. It was praised for many things -- perfectly pitched writing, a kick-ass heroine, the attempt at a really big idea (that nothing is without its cost, and that a Grace, like any gift, both has to be paid for and grown into before it blooms into the fullness of its potential).

A good solid read, it was -- on many levels. But I found myself taking issue with several of the other (and far more august) reviews when it came to the minutiae. I thought the story itself, the plot, was great -- but I did not find individual characters all that compelling, standing on their own, and I found that occasionally the dialogue was enough to set my teeth on edge (because in reality, ANY sort of reality, even a high-fantasy one, people in my experience just do not talk in this way.) I am a worldbuilding purist and I could not find a method or an underlying rule governing the naming of the characters in this book -- and that alone is usually enough to goad me into the kind of frustration that bodes ill for the overall enjoyment of the actual narrative. For instance, Katsa herself, obviously female, has a name that ends in an "a." So does King Randa, who is related to her and therefore comes from the same linguistic and cultural background as herself. ONE of these forms is the feminine; and King Randa was the quintessential Boy Named Sue then he at least, as the King, might have had the opportunity to fix that unfortunate issue when he became the omnipotent ruler of all he surveyed. I also tripped over a number of other names (I found it really hard to relate to a hero who rejoiced in the name of Po, possibly because I was brought up in the British English tradition and the concept of "po-faced" kept on popping up and distracting me from the events at hand in the book. A name like Bitterblue, while nicely evocative, also came out of nowhere, and there was a part of me that withdrew from the book when she was introduced, worrying instead at the origins of such an odd name. I am not saying that these are problems that might bother any other given reader -- but they bugged me, and they might well bug someone who has a similar devotion to high-concept fantasy worldbuilding as I do. There was a sense of surface to it, that there didn't appear to be more to this world beyond the story being told and the map frontispiece. It is entirely possible that I am blaspheming and that Kristin Cashore has done copious amounts of backstory for this particular tale. I can't see any of it in the book as it stands, though. If there is a depth to it beyond what we see, I can't fathom it. Perhaps it is too well hidden for me. Perhaps it simply isn't there to an extent to which I require it.

I found it difficult to grapple with the motivations of some of the book's characters -- some because they were too transparently obvious to me, as the reader, and I couldn't see even a total social klutz like Katsa missing the point -- and some because they were rootless -- I never could take at face value the Bad Kings who were bad just because they were bad, in this instance who were bad because the author needed a bad king to wield Katsa like a weapon so that she could Learn Her Lessons in the book, but who otherwise did not have much else of a reason for existing. And even with the Grace of survival I found the escape through the frozen high pass a little bit difficult to believe, particularly the manner in which various critters like big cats and wolves were killed and their skins used as outer garments -- they would have a hard time sneaking past anything or anybody once they got down into the lower valleys and the uncured skins thawed out sufficiently to start stinking. Again, possibly there is depth here hidden from me -- but if there was, I could not find it. All I saw was a nod to convenience -- Katsa and her charge fairly obviously needed something "extra" to survive the snows, the wolves were there, and voila, we have a fur coat. Yes, it was an emergency. Yes, I may be overwhelmingly picky on detail. But it is just so easy to get away with just-enough in a work of fantasy, and I simply never really get the sense that there was more than just-enough background in this one.

The buzz is out there, and you are perfectly free, as any reader is, to believe it instead of an outlier data point. Yes, I know what the brass ring is, and I realise that the majority of other reviewers out there appear to think that this book has triumphantly carried it off. As far as I personally am concerned… not so much. I enjoyed it, to be sure, and there were moments in it that were beyond a doubt extraordinary -- but the heroine never stepped, living, from the pages for me, and nor did her world.

It's a story. I was never moved to believe it was or could be more than that. It was a read; it will never, for me, be a re-read. If we were giving stars I would not give it more than two out of four. But please -- do make up your own mind. After all, the New York Times Review of Books praised it to the skies.

Copyright © 2009 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves." When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her international success, The Secrets of Jin Shei, has been translated into ten languages worldwide, and its follow-up, Embers of Heaven, is coming out in 2006. She is also the author of the fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days.


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