I’ve been reading a lot of paranormal YA fiction lately, and I’ve been struck by the gendering of the powers authors bestow upon their protagonists. The hero’s powers usually involve him turning into a vampire/werewolf/Hound of Hell, often against his will. The heroine communicates with ghosts, finds dead bodies, reads minds. I’ve concluded that there’s a basic rule in this genre: thou shalt never grant a heroine a power that diminishes her looks. Show me a book where a girl grows a snout or sprouts facial hair, please. And: the hero’s powers will enhance his “masculine” traits–strength, speed, night vision; he will never be allocated a “feminine” power like empathy, or serenity.
So I am thrilled to have read a YA book that shoves all these notions into the bonfire of the stereotypes.
Katsa is a Graceling, a person possessing a special talent known as a Grace. Katsa’s particular Grace is killing. We’re not talking about death rays or Avada Kedavra here–Katsa kills by being fast and strong and brutal, snapping necks by the time her opponent locates his sword hand. Oh, and she’s eighteen.
(This part has some spoilerish bits, beware.)
Ever since she was eight, Katsa has been the cat’s paw for her uncle the king, intimidating the rebellious into following his orders. But the day comes when she sickens of her role and her Grace, and refuses to carry out the king’s orders. At this time she meets Po, a prince from a neighboring kingdom Graced with fighting skills. Po is searching for his missing grandfather, and Katsa decides to accompany him on a quest to find the abductors. Along the journey, they learn some surprising things about their world, and their respective Graces, which are not what they seem. At all.
(End of spoilers, which do not extend beyond the first fourth of the book, I promise.)
And here are the reasons why I recommend this book.
1. The lack of emphasis on Katsa’s looks. She’s a fighter, her face gets messed up. Period. When she cuts off her hair, we don’t have a character reassuring her that it brings out her cheekbones or makes her look like a tulip. She just cuts the damn mess off because it gets in the way. It’s probably a buzz cut.
2. Strong, memorable protagonists made unique by who they are rather than any gimmicky mannerisms. Graceling is the antidote to books where the author seems to have doled out one trait per character as though allocating chores (patient dad! nervy mom!). Katsa’s Grace is the least of who she is.
3. No sappy gender roles played out by the protagonists. No forced end where the boy saves “his” girl, even if the girl is super-powered and the boy is Joe the apprentice plumber. Graceling subverts almost everything I find disappointing about this genre.
4. Recognition that marriage and children are not the ultimate aim for all. No passive-aggressive judgements on right and wrong in matters of personal choice. No privileging of heterosexual relationships. Are Banf and Raffin a gay couple or just friends? I don’t know, and really, it doesn’t matter to the story.
5. No misunderstandings, love interests introduced solely to evoke jealousy in the protagonists, or teenage angst. A believably-paced relationship. No big reveal that we guessed long ago anyway. In sum, no cliches. When was the last time….
6. The quality of the prose. There isn’t a single passage that is not owned by this book and this book alone. All my other paranormal YA reads featured numerous interchangeable passages–substitute werewolf for vampire or blue for hazel eyes, and they were essentially the same book. Cashore actually makes her words count.
7. A most potent romance that includes an understated but very hot scene, which actually highlights the minds of the characters rather than their bodies.
8. A thumping good plot of the old-fashioned kind. A cause worth fighting for, truly creepy villain, genuine obstacles to struggle with, and satisfyingly scary climax. If I did find some plot holes (are there no deaf people in Monsea?) I am more than willing to overlook them because of 1-7.
How good is the book? When I finished Graceling, I flipped it over to begin reading again. If I were fourteen, I’d probably get a Katsa tattoo. Read it now. And then buy a copy for all the budding feminists you know.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Harcourt Children’s Books 2008
Genre: YA paranormal