I don’t need to do a regular review of this YA fantasy title; everyone and his dog have been there before me, and I agree: it’s a great debut novel, good story, intriguing characters, and themes that provoke both thought and emotion. Here are some reviews for those of you who haven’t read the book yet:
Carrie K: “In her debut novel, Ms. Cashore has created a fully formed world with authentic characters that breathe on the page. I loved Katsa, Po, Raffin, Helda, Bitterblue – these characters became real to me as I read, and I cared deeply about what happened to them.”
The Reading Zone: “This is a gorgeous romance set amid a fantastic fantasy. Cashore has given birth to a new world within these seven kingdoms, and the romance between Po and Katsa will leave your heart racing.”
Librarian Amy: “Katsa is an orphaned young woman, the niece of the king, who is graced with the ability to kill. As she matures, she becomes less comfortable with being the king’s bully and muscle, and part of the story is her quest to know herself, her grace, and her place in the world.”
So, relieved of the need to do a full court press review (whatever that is), I thought I’d write a little mini-essay about something I noticed while reading the book, even though it’s not the main point of the novel. The main point of the novel is that relationships are complicated, and that giftedness in whatever area can be both a liability and a “grace.” The remainder of this post assumes that you’ve already read Graceling.
Transition. (I can’t think of one.) Back in the seventies when I was a kid of a girl, I read a series of fantasy novels that became classics: the Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Since I was a teenager and more easily shocked back then, I was somewhat taken aback by the attitude of the Weyr-folk of Pern in regard to sex. Basically, without going into detail, they’re rather promiscuous. Their excuse is that the dragons make them do it. I won’t debate the morality or sustainability of such a society, but I did notice that the Dragonriders of Pern with their casual attitudes toward sexual liaisons appeared in literature at about the time that our society was tending toward casual sexual pairings and serial monogamy (and acceptance of homosexuality which is accepted and practiced on Pern). I don’t suppose it’s any great new insight, but McCaffery’s fantasy/sci-fi seemed to be trying out the same morality (or lack thereof) that the American society was trying out in the 1970’s. It works better in the books than in real life.
So what do all these dragon-riding ethical systems have to do with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling? I believe I see the same sort of playing out of the possibilities of a sexual ethic in Graceling. This time rather than promiscuity with excellent reasons, it’s the current rampant marriage-phobia that is being explored. Katsa and Po, the two main characters in Graceling, are in love, but for reasons that are unclear to me, something to do with fear of being controlled or of losing control, the two decide not to marry but to be lovers. How very twenty-first century!
I noticed this same fear of marriage (fear of commitment?) played out in the ever-so-popular Twilight series: Bella is willing and ready to go to bed with her vampire boyfriend, Edward, but she fears and resists the idea of marriage. Both Bella and Katsa are afraid that marriage will spoil the love relationship they have with their respective paramours; somehow marriage, instead of strengthening a relationship, is seen as a spoiler, a denier of freedom, and a trap. Perhaps some of this resistance to marriage is a way for the author to maintain the dramatic and sexual tension between her characters. After all, if your romantic leads get married on page 100, what kind of tension remains to be explored in the remaining 200 pages, not to mention sequels? And even if there is relationship-building and even sex after marriage, is it the kind of thing that Graceling’s and Twilight’s teen audiences want to read about?
However, this view of marriage as the problem rather than the solution, is also a popular one in our culture these days. Bella and Edward make their way to the altar over the course of the four books in the series; perhaps Katsa and Po will also come to understand the possibility for some kind of committed relationship that gives freedom because of its boundaries instead of living in fear of their own desires to belong to one another wholly in a physical and emotional and even spiritual sense. Old-fashioned twentieth century reader that I am, I call that relationship “marriage”, but if author Cashore and her characters want to call it “the grace of committed love,” I won’t complain about the nomenclature.
Noel DeVries says kinda sorta what I’m saying here. Only she’s much more straightforward and comprehensible.