With all the Hunger Games hype in the media, I have been missing me some Katniss. The fierce, prickly but lovable hot-headed heroine of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy holds a special place in my heart, let alone the canon of contemporary children’s literature. Hoping for a similar heroine and adrenaline rush I turned to a novel I have been meaning to read for ages, Kristin Cashore’s much lauded Graceling. My needs were totally met. If there was ever a YA all-star kick ass team, Katniss and Katsa, star of Graceling, would totally be my first string picks.
Cashore’s Katsa bears a striking resemblence to Katniss in more than just name. Like Katniss, Katsa is a strong-willed, cunning survivor. She is also a star archer, though a skill with bow and arrow is not Katsa’s only skill. In a fight Katsa is practically unbeatable. This is because she has been graced with the gift of fighting. In Cashore’s world, some people are born with heightened abilities that border on the supernatural. These people are marked by different coloured eyes and are feared and often used by those in power.
Katsa is the niece of the petty and dangerous king Randa, who takes advantage of her grace to bully his citizens. Unsatisfied with this goon work, Katsa also moonlights as a member of the Council, a Robin Hood and his Merry Thieves-esque secret society that does good throughout the seven lands. It is through her secret work in the council that Katsa stumbles upon a bizarre plot involving the kidnapping of an old man connected to the Lienid royal family and his handsome grandson, Prince Po, who possesses a powerful grace similar to Katsa’s. When Katsa and Po set off to discover thr truth behind the old man’s kidnapping, what they find is deeply unsettling.
Cashore’s writing is lush but not overdone, which is befitting of her traditional fantasy setting. Instead of Collins’ bleak distopian future, Cashore’s story takes place in that vaguely medieval other world of kings, queens and magic that so many fantasy novels tend to be situated in. These novels have a historical tinge to them, often feature riders on horseback, rough clothing made of furs, courtly intrigue, and decadent palaces.
There are some darker elements that push Graceling into the 12+ range, including animal cruelty and implied sexual violence against young women. The relationship between Po and Katsa does turn sexual, but it is in no way gratuitous or graphic. Instead, I found it was a healthy portrayal of a loving, consensual realtionship between equals; rare, and wonderful to stumble upon in YA fiction, where too often sex is portrayed as violent, cheap, or described in such elusive terms the reader has to guess at what is happening.*
There are other similarities to The Hunger Games, including an almost too good to be true love interest, a younger girl that needs Katsa’s protection, and a world ruled and fascinated by violence. All this being said, Graceling stands completley on it’s own, and is in no way a derivative or pale imitation of The Hunger Games. The fact that I would even compare the two is simply a testament to Graceling‘s quality and appeal. This is a fantasic, satisfying read for fantasy readers or lovers of strong female protagonists, aged 12+. Fans of Tamora Pierce and Erin Bow’s Plain Kate (another fantasy favourite, featuring a protagonist who also deserves a spot on my YA all star team) will especially eat this one up.
Graceling is available now in paperback from Graphica, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
*This is definitely starting to change, and is a fascinating case study. Representations of sexual relationships in YA fiction was one of my possible topics when I was narrowing down my thesis options, so I’ve read my fair share of horrible and confusing sex scenes in teen books. Yowzers.