Review written by Jennifer Lewis
Graceling tells the story of Katsa. Her Grace, which is an innate and highly advanced skill, provides her with an uncanny fighting ability, an ability the king has claimed as his weapon to wield. However, she’s disgusted with the king’s using her to solve his problems by inflicting pain on those who displease him. When news surrounding a suspicious kidnapping leads her on a journey with a Lienid Prince, she learns more about her Grace and the effect that the Grace of others can have on the people of the Seven Kingdoms. In addition, Katsa and Prince Po develop a relationship that surprises all who know them. Graceling explores Katsa’s emotional attachments to her friends, lover, and those she protects as she develops from a fighter bound to the king’s service to a woman devoted to the care of those around her.
Katsa begins the book as a physically strong woman, master of all things combat related. However, she has no parents or siblings and her closest friend is her male cousin. This secluded, martial lifestyle has led to minimal development within the emotional realm. She swears she will never marry or have children, and she seems to reject all things related to commitment or settling in one place. As the book goes on, she falls in love with Po and finds herself caring about the well-being of Bitterblue—the daughter of the Monsea king—who has to flee for her life. However, Katsa doesn’t waver in her decision to remain free of commitments to other people that might restrict her independence and she does so while remaining true to herself and those around her. While her decision would not have been mine, I admire that she adheres to her convictions, unconventional though they may be.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
There is indeed sex in this book. It’s not overt or graphic, but there’s no doubt about what Katsa and Po are doing. There’s everything from “playful romp” and arousal type references to the pain associated with intercourse for the first time. Katsa and Po aren’t married, and they never intend to marry.
Katsa is attracted to Po for many reasons: personality, appearance, his own take on the world. While this was enjoyable to follow, I more enjoyed how Katsa was unwavering in her love of him. She was forced to abandon him in the woods to save Bitterblue’s life, and she was relentless in her efforts to return to him. Upon returning, she found he was blind. Often books romanticize these situations by having the healthy person dote on the injured or sacrifice their life’s goals to care for them. While Katsa still loved Po very much, she didn’t cease to be herself and instead used her strengths to help Po develop coping strategies in line with the way he deals with the world. I felt this treatment of their relationship was more realistic of the kinds of hurdles many relationships endure.
This book has no shortage of violence. The very first page begins with Katsa drugging all of the guards in an area so she can free a prisoner. She’s essentially the king’s instrument of torture sent to do his bidding when someone hasn’t paid or if a message needs to be sent. She has killed people, broken arms, and fought for the enjoyment of spectators. Katsa struggles with this throughout the book because it turns out her true Grace isn’t fighting but instead survival; she’s surviving (even though she didn’t realize this was the case) by doing the will of the king and thus remaining in his employ since she has no parents and those with a Grace are often shunned in polite circles.
The king of Monsea (one of The Seven Kingdoms), Leck, also has a Grace that lets him direct people’s thoughts. He uses this to accomplish some great evils in his kingdom including killing his own wife and attempting to kill his own daughter, Bitterblue. Even as an adult, it was distressing for me to contemplate that someone could be that calloused and that evil to those around him.
Po loses his vision due to an injury suffered when he, Bitterblue, and Katsa are running from Leck. As one of the 7 princes of Lienid, Po fears that this condition will weaken his ability to govern his region of Lienid, and that he’ll no longer be worthy of Katsa in his new state. While Po’s original Grace was thought to be hand fighting, his real Grace is perception. Katsa helps him attune this Grace to enable him to adjust to the loss of his sight while assisting him in continuing to conceal his true Grace from those who would use it illicitly to harm others.
Death and Loss
Bitterblue is a pre-teen girl who has been imprisoned by her father (King Leck of Monsea), seen her mother killed by Leck, and had to flee for her life with Katsa through a harsh mountain winter. She’s witnessed countless deaths, horrors, and torture at the hands of her father and the subjects he controls. Graceling doesn’t go into excruciating detail on any one of these things, but they are definitely mentioned and the impact on Bitterblue is apparent.
I had initially thought to read this book with my then 9 year old. However, it’s definitely for an older audience, as evidenced by Amazon’s 14 years and up rating. I personally enjoyed a strong female lead who journeys through some experiences many of us will never have (combat, wilderness survival) as well as experiences that most of us will indeed have (new love, unforeseen relationship challenges, caring for / protecting a child).
I would recommend this book to older readers (14+ is sounding about right) who enjoy a strong female lead with slightly unconventional standpoints who still has strong moral values. It definitely addresses some darker topics, and I would not recommend it to readers who will be disturbed by violence.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
Published in 2008 by Graphia / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
There are two other books in this world, although they have different protagonists. Fire takes place before Graceling, and Bitterblue is a sequel.