Thursday, April 19, 2012

Book Review: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore
#1 in the Seven Realms series
Release Date: October 1, 2008
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Pages: 471
Received: Own
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars


From Goodreads:

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.

When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away... a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.


Katsa, oh Katsa. Where do I begin?

If this were the kind of book where I was expected to get behind Katsa and view her as a paragon of awesomeness, I'd probably upchuck. So, it's pretty lucky that I didn't view Katsa as a character I should agree with 100% of the time.

Here's the deal with Katsa: She grew up in her jerkface uncle's custody and spent most of her life there completely ignored by him. Occasionally he'd send her off on a mission when he needed her to go torture or kill some upstart in his kingdom. Pretty messed up, right? Of course it is, and now, also obviously, so is Katsa. You just don't go and have an upbringing like that and expect to come out A-okay.

So Katsa's about 12 kinds of weird mixed with a heavy dose of "she just ain't right," but that's ok and expected. Her background and development also make her an interesting and sometimes even sympathetic character. But you know what it also makes her?


*sigh* Sometimes I felt like I had stumbled into the medieval fantasy version of an issues book. I wanted to see more amazing fighting and hear less whining indecision. But fine, if we're going to explore her wounded psyche, then someone seriously needs to teach Katsa how to express her feelings in healthy, constructive ways.

Look, I get why people in her court probably never wanted to say "no" to her (probably because of the whole "she can kill you with her pinky" thing), but the girl needs to learn some manners. I wanted to tell her to shove it every time she barked out some impulsive and inane command.

If Katsa ever found the Internet, she would totally be one of those people who expects you to be able to Google anything. Find me the name of the book I was thinking about two weeks ago! WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU NEED MORE INFORMATION?! DOOOO IIIITTTT NOOOOOWWWW!!!

She would also write everything IN CAPS LOCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11111111

But, just like encounters with those people, I never really took her to heart. I mean, the girl's messed up. But, like, seriously, she's not right in the head. I pretty much just rolled my eyes at her and gave her the literary equivalent to that whole shoulder pat "Ok honey, whatever you say, uh huh..." response.

Also, I would love it if Katsa could stop being such a grade-A jerk when it came to the treatment of her horses. Seriously, lay off. 

What about the rest of it?

The rest of it is much better. I'm a fantasy fanatic, so I'm admittedly biased, but I liked Kristin Cashore's fictional world a whole lot. The idea of being graced is a lot like having X-Men super powers, which is always a Give Me That Book! feature for me.

I liked unraveling the mystery about Katsa and Po's graces (they're not what you're first led to believe), but the reality of them was mixed for me (a let down for Katsa's, but I thought Po's was pretty cool). I also liked the mystery surrounding the kidnapping, but the coolest parts centered around the villain and their past.

My only real complaint about all of this is that the pacing is more moderate than fast, and I'm the kind of reader who thinks "frenetic" is "just right." So I was a little antsy at certain points. Still, for a book that's almost 500 pages, it didn't feel that long at all.

When all was said and done, though, I have to admit that I felt a little disappointed. Kinda like, that's it? For me, Graceling was a good, solid book, but I was hoping for greatness.

There were a lot of "almosts" for me here—the world building was almost there, but there was a roughness that led to some holes. The supporting characters were almost perfect, but they didn't have enough development or pagetime. The mystery was almost fantastic, but I felt let down with the swiftness of the resolution and the villain's motivation. So, almost, but not quite.

Less Katsa, more everyone else, please!

Aside from Katsa, the other characters were all pretty likable, but none are particularly well developed. Part of that is because this is Katsa's story though, and most characters only appear sporadically. I do like them all enough that I want to learn more about them and I'm hoping at least some will appear in the other books in the series (Fire, a prequel, so probably pretty slim odds and Bitterblue a sequel in which I know at least one character will reappear!)

The only other character of note that I can talk about without giving away spoilers would be Prince Po, and I sort of have to say his name with a swoony sigh. He's the kind of guy who leans. He's all casual cool and he can totally hold his own. He's also not afraid to call Katsa on her less attractive qualities, thankfully.

Not only that, but he's one of those rare guys who I think would satisfy readers who like alpha men AND readers who like, um, there has to be a better description than sissy boys—sensitive guys? Peeta-like? (sorry, you can tell which side *I'm* on). I'd put Po in a category with guys like Wayland North (TOTAL swoon) from Brightly Woven and Howl from Howl's Moving Castle.

The writing makes me cringe a little

The writing is...serviceable. I mean, you can read it just fine and it doesn't get bogged down with flowery adjectives everywhere. But it's rough. There are a lot of weird repetitions ("Turning when it was time to turn...") that seemed like really lazy writing/editing. Not a deal breaker for me, but it did make my eye twitch a little.

Bottom line

I mostly avoided a lot of hype and, thankfully, one of my early introductions to Graceling was through Krystle's far from glowing review. Had I been sucked in by the hype I think I would have been massively disappointed, but luckily my expectations were pretty low already so I was pleasantly surprised.

I liked it enough that I am going to read the two other books in the series, but I don't feel the need to beg, borrow, bribe, and steal for them. Graceling ends as if it were a standalone, so while I will read the other books at some point, I can comfortably push them a little further down my TBR for now.

Oh, and a warning for those who want a warning: There's sex. Not graphic, but it's there, and it's of the "no strings attached" variety.

Explanation of rating system: Star Rating Key 

Do you have any questions about Graceling that I haven't addressed?
Feel free to ask in the comments!

Have you read Graceling? How did you like Katsa? What were your thoughts overall?

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  1. I really enjoyed Graceling, but I loved Fire even more. Fire still has her own issues, but I found her to be less whiney than Katsa...and I think you'd like to know that the villain in Graceling still plays a fairly prominent role in it, too. He's sooo creepy. I'm glad to hear you'll get around to it + Bitterblue at some point.

    Sigh. Po. I'm off to swoon over him now! Love the review, Small!

  2. I liked Graceling and I liked Katsa. But I thought her "I'm strong and I don't need to settle down and marry and live happily ever after" was too feminist hear my roar. Not that it was bad, but I didn't like that she looked down on those who chose that lifestyle. But it's been awhile since I've read it so I may feel differently if I read it now. I read it right when everyone was praising Graceling as the anti-Twilight when I thought the "message" that Graceling promoted swung too far in the opposite direction as Twilight.

    On a light note, guess what I started today?!!?? The False Prince!!!! I'm on page 32 and already in love.

  3. ROFL!!!! The part mit the CAPS made me laugh so loud!! I haven't read Graceling but I'm still debating with myself if I really wanna read it... I don't like annoying characters...
    Lovely Review!

  4. I preferred Graceling to Fire but I feel like it had more action and might be more to your taste. It's been a while since I've read it but I remember that as a general impression.

    Sensitive is an adequate description for Po and his ilk. They're not sissy! They just don't use their generally superior size to intimidate women and be jerky. They don't dominate and ignore boundaries. I'm still trying to think of a good descriptor to stand against alpha. Will keep you updated when I do!

  5. I haven't got the chance to read Graceling yet and I'm still unsure whether I should or not... I've hear heaps of mixed things about it. Fabulous review!
    - Jenni

  6. Yay! Someone else who wasn't completely blown away by Graceling. I liked it, but didn't love it, and while I didn't remember feeling Katsa was nearly as 'not right in the head' as you put it several times *snickers* she was a tad annoying. There wasn't enough of a love story in this for me, she was WAY too stand-offish. Haven't had a desire yet to read any of the rest of the series, and I'm ok with that.

    To other things, THANK YOU FOR THE WARNING on the horrible cliff-hanger ending for the second unicorn killers book. *phew* that was close! I wasn't going to go and read it right away, but BECAUSE there was no mention of a third in the works I had assumed it would be safe to read. Guess that wasn't necessarily the case.

    Oh! I got Spellbound by Vivian Vande Velde from the library this week. It has both the changeling prince and the conjurer princess in it. You have said very good things about the characters in these books so I am uber excited for it! The only bad thing is this ones cover has the guy with a buzz cut...and long bangs. Weirdest haircut ever! (and oddly enough one of my accounting professors had a similar style..not a good comparison to make..).

  7. I hate Katsa! Freaking horse abuser! She can get trampled by her own horses! I wish Po would wise and ditch her abusive ass. >=[.

  8. I read this two years ago, so I don't remember whether I thought Katsa was too whiny, but Graceling was about a 3 star read for me, too. I liked it because I like fantasy, especially fantasy with female heoines and I think the world of gracelings is really cool. The things I thought stopped it from being great were Lenk (too fully evil and for no real reason to be an interesting villain) and Po's injury at the end (too soap opera-ish and melodramatic). I prefer Fire - it's not perfect, either, but I think Kristin Cashore got a lot better at crafting a story and it feels more sophisticated. There's even more sex in it, though!

  9. I've heard nothing but good things about Graceling thus far, but a lot of problems you had with this book seem like problems I would have as well. Now I'm kind of curious if I'd feel the same way.

  10. Oh I'm SO bummed. I absolutely adored Katsa and this book!While some didn't like the "no strings attached" relationship, I thought it was true to the character and honestly, it's nice to see that not all heroines or love stories end up in marriage.

  11. Katsa sounds like she blows!
    And did she do something bad to the horses? because that's up there with puppy killer, you know?

    Po sounds nice, though I immediately think Kung Fu Panda when I hear the name.

    Great review, Smallsie :D

  12. I picked up Graceling from the library years ago and stopped reading a couple chapters in. Maybe it was the writing? I don't even remember. But I've seen a lot of hype for the series in general so I'm definitely going to try reading it again.

    Katsa doesn't sound all that likeable though..she couldn't have been that bad if you finished the book though, right? And she mistreats her horses? Clearly someone needs to knock her down a few pegs! I trust your judgement though, awesome review!

  13. I have considered this book a few times and I have read numerous not so hot review. Your review was thorough and fair. Your description of Katsa made me laugh. Due to my consoderably large TBR pile, Katsa and crew will end up toeards the bottom. Thanks for your analysis, Small :)

  14. First time I read this one, I really didn't like it much, especially Katsa and her choices. Second time, I liked it a lot more, for the fantasy awesome that it has. So glad to see there are folks out there who don't think it is the most amazing thing ever.

  15. After all the hype of Bitterblue I was considering picking up've given me a lot to think abut!

  16. I have to say...after the the comparisons to North and Howl, I am definitely interested in meeting Po! Lol. This book has been on my shelf for years and I've heard so many great things about it, yet I still haven't managed to pick it up. I have to say it's a bit relieving to come across a good but not gushing review of it though. I've been concerned it couldn't possibly live up to the hype for me, but you've given me more realistic expectations. :)

  17. I read this one a few years ago and honestly don't remember too much about it. I think I found it entertaining while I read it, but (obviously) not all that memorable. I don't think I had the same issues with Katsa as you did...but I don't remember that much about her besides the fact that she was one of those tough, kick-butt heroines, LOL.

    Loved this line in your review! "Sometimes I felt like I had stumbled into the medieval fantasy version of an issues book." *pictures a whole bunch of knights sitting around a campfire and sharing*

    Also, did I read that wrong, or were you insulting Peeta? *mock gasps* He is not a "sissy boy"! :P LOL, I am Team Peeta, but by the same token, I am also a big fan of Howl from Howl's Moving Castle and other more "alpha" fictional guys, so I don't think there is much of a discernible pattern in my preferred male leads :D

  18. Yeah, I'm glad I haven't read consistently positive reviews for this one because that could lead to a massive letdown when I eventually get around to reading it. I'm not sure I'd like Katsa either - especially if she's a jerkwad to horses. But Po sounds great. Unlike you, I am most certainly a fan of Peeta-like characters (He's not a sissy, haha! I think he's quite brave :P) and it's an added bonus if they know how to lean, heehee.

  19. I didn't like this book. I could handle the whole Katsa being a wench thing and I could handle the whole feminist vibe the book through out. However, to me, it felt like the characters totally changed who they were half way through the book and there wasn't any development to support it. Plus, the baddie got almost no screen time, which would have been okay, but he was so underdeveloped, I didn't feel his evil-ness at all. I think the writing was pretty bad and at sometimes so obvious my eyes rolled back into my head which sounds more like an exorcist move than anything. Anyway, I did at one point really love Po, but by the end, I thought he should have died instead of what happened. LOL! I'm evil. ;)

  20. Haha! Your review made me smile. I think expectations are really key and hype is some dangerous stuff. It seems that Katsa's annoying behavior is understandable but I know I'm the difficult reader that wants the main character to not be annoying no matter her life situation. So...ehhh I don't know if this would be my thing.

  21. Oo, Po! I loved Po. I read this one awhile back but I do remember being entertained by this one. I liked that Katsa was a strong female heroine but I can't remember if I found her annoying. I do remember being annoyed by the fact that she kept insisting she wouldn't get married. It was like "We get it already! Enough, please!" I would have totally said yes :)

  22. Alright, I'm a bit confused. Does Katsa continue through the series? And with all the uproar about Bitterblue I thought this was like the be all end all series like The Hunger Games or The Mortal Instruments which I haven't read. (Okay, I read the Hunger Games, the first bk). You're telling me I haven't missed the best thing since sliced bread???? Whew! Cause I just don't know when I'd find the time to read it. And I really like my female characters in the middle, they can be strong, but I like them to have boyfriends. And not freaky weird psyches.

    Great breakdown Small!! I love that you do your reviews this way!! It really lets a person decide if they would like it and not count on just your opinion. Great review!
    (not that there is anything wrong with your opinion, just that all our opinions can differ :)


  23. To be honest, I think I felt the same way. I read this about 2 years ago and remembered really liking it, but then I started to read it again and I started to feel the same way as you. I ended up not finishing it that second time (i've read some much better books since then :P)! I loved the world-building and Po, but Katsa got on my nerves. I was expecting some kick-butt girl and a book full of non-stop action, but you don't get that. If anything, Po was a stronger character. I actually remember liking Fire much better! Though, I want to re-read it just in case it ends up like this one. Though I am pretty psyched for Bitterblue, but I've heard some mixed reviews so we'll see XD
    Great review!!

    All the best ♥
    Mackenzie @ Oh, For the Love of Books!

  24. I started to read this one and ended up putting it down. Now, I'm back to reading it in between books. I like it. Although, as far as heroines go...I'll choose Katniss or Ali (TIR) or Ismae any day. lol Katsa is a little snarky and bossy for my taste. And right now, I'm at the point where I wish Po was in it more. But the world-building is cool. Great review! Love your honesty :)

  25. I totally laughed out loud at your description of Katsa! Brilliant!

    And I love your comparison of graces to the X-men! Hehehe!

    I think Po was probably the biggest reason I enjoyed this book.

    Great review!

    Lauren @ Hughes Reviews


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