There's been a real trend lately in contemporary YA fiction to glamorize as the feminist ideal the strong, independent woman who is able to protect her male companion (seen most notably in Katniss of The Hunger Games, but also, for example, in Keladry of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small quartet. Hmm...I wonder why all of these are K-names!) It's an interesting idea, and if done well, can provide a much-needed alternative to the standards of feminine beauty and behavior promoted in mainstream culture. Kristin Cashore's Graceling was recommended to me as just such a book. I really wanted to like it. But in the end, I was was puzzled by some elements of Cashore's story and bothered by others, and I don't think I'll continue on with the rest of the trilogy.
I'm perplexed by this whole system of Graces. Katsa is a Graceling, a person with some kind of special magical talent. Gracelings are marked by eyes of two different colors, and as soon as their powers become apparent, are essentially enslaved by the rulers of their kingdoms. But even after finishing the entire novel, I was left puzzled. Are Graces magical abilities, or just talents at particular skills? Because "Grace" seems to mean either, as the author needs. I'm cool with the concept of a Grace that is essentially a bit of innate magic, like the girl who can mind-read or the woman who can foretell the weather. But I'm troubled by the Graces that are simply skills. How come only certain people can be particularly good at swimming, or cooking, or fighting? Why can't people without differently-colored eyes get equally good at these skills just through practice? Cashore's Graces smack dangerously of gender essentialism, uncoupled from gender, but still a system of judgment about one's ability to undertake a particular action that is based purely on display of an obvious physical characteristic.
Secondly, Graceling suffers from poor world-building. In a book whose plot revolves around political intrigue between seven kingdoms and their rulers, where is the back-story, the history of these countries, the explanation for the ever-changing pattern of attacks between the kingdoms? Surely there are alliances, diplomats, actual good reasons for fraught international relations...we just don't get to see them in this book. The first few chapters are clearly intended as the introduction to Cashore's world, but teaching readers how the world works isn't very subtly done. It was a slow and somewhat info dump-style start.
Once the plot gets going, the book picks up significantly, but even then, there's a bit too much wandering around through the countryside. And there are deeper problems:
First, animal cruelty is not okay. Katsa regularly abuses her horses, and these actions are written off as necessary or even commented upon as a cute recall. The villain of the tale cuts up small animals, but this reveal is only necessary inasmuch as it helps Katsa and Po figure out how his dangerous Grace works; the animal cruelty itself is soon forgotten.
Hitting someone because they've said something to upset you is not okay.
“Isn’t it in your power to refuse?” Po asked. “How can anyone force you to do anything?”
The fire burst into her throat and choked her. “He is the king. And you’re a fool, too, if you think I have a choice in the matter.”
“But you do have a choice. He’s not the one who makes you savage. You make yourself savage, when you bend yourself to his will.”
She sprang to her feet and swung at his jaw with the side of her hand. She lessened the force of the blow only at the last instant, when she realized he hadn’t raised his arm to block her. Her hand hit his face with a sickening crack. She watched, horrified, as his chair toppled backward and his head slammed against the floor. She’d hit him hard. She knew she’d hit him hard. And he hadn’t defended himself.
She ran to him. He lay on his side, both hands over his jaw. A tear trickled from his eyes, over his fingers, and onto the floor.
Yes, Katsa and Po have been sparring partners in mutually-enjoyable practice fights. But imagine if the genders were reversed - a man hitting a woman because her words upset him. This abuse would be unforgivable, even if he immediately regretted it. Why is it okay when it's a woman committing the violence? For a supposedly feminist narrative, this book doesn't seem to get that feminism is about treating all people like, well, people.
Which brings me to my third big problem: this book's really one-sided and militant view of feminism. According to Graceling, a properly strong woman hates dresses and prefers to have a boyishly short haircut rather than taking the time to wash and comb longer hair. She won't get married and she certainly won't have children, because these things would take her power away from her:
If she took Po as her husband, she would be making promises about a future she couldn't yet see. For once she became his wife, she would be his forever. And, no matter how much freedom Po gave her, she would always know that it was a gift. Her freedom would be not be her own; it would be Po's to give or to withhold. That he never would withhold it made no difference. If it did not come from her, it was not really hers.
She will consent to a sexual relationship with a man who is willing to take whatever she gives him, complete with the understanding that she will not commit and can leave him at any time, with no guarantee of her return. Again, what if the genders were reversed, and it was Po giving so little commitment to Katsa?
Finally [and here I'm offering spoilers for sure], Graceling has too many conclusions, because there are too many main narratives. Is the book about Katsa's coming to terms with her Grace and learning to use her skills to save life rather than take it? In that case, the really rather wonderful crossing-the-mountain sequence is Katsa's real triumph. Is the book about the political intrigue, figuring out that one of the rulers of the seven kingdoms is a Really Bad Man who must be killed for the good of all? In that case, Katsa's face-off with him is the book's climax. Or is the book about the relationship between Katsa and Po, and the way in which they help each other grow into their strengthening Graces? That strand of the narrative is the last to resolve, but by this third conclusion, I was past ready for the book to be over.
If you want a strong female character, combat, survival skills, and political commentary, I'd say stick to The Hunger Games. That trilogy isn't perfect either, but had fewer really problematic elements. Graceling was disappointing. (Sorry Kelly!)