To wash the taint of the Duggars and their awful ideas about women, gender roles, sex and sexuality out of my mind, I re-read Kristen Cashore’s Graceling. Graceling is Cashore’s debut novel, and if you haven’t read it, you really must. It is vibrant and self assured with strong plotting and memorable characters. The central character, Katsa, is a girl who seeks control over her own body and mind. The Duggars and their ilk would hate it.
Katsa’s world, The Seven Kingdoms, is similar to our Medieval period – feudal system, kings, women are chattel. Katsa exists somewhat out side this system because she was born with a Grace. Gracelings are people born with an extra strong talent, and different colored eyes. Gracelings are owned, in effect, by their king. Katsa is also the orphaned niece of King Randa. Katsa’s Grace is understood as the ability to harm and kill. Her uncle has used her as a weapon of punishment and intimidation since she was a child. Her role as enforcer allows her more freedom to travel and move about the countryside than the average person. Her ability to fight, with or without weapons, grants her a personal safety other women, and most men, don’t have. When she is not killing and maiming at the behest of the king, she is expected to appear and behave as a lady, and marry and bear children. Katsa abhors the thought of belonging to another person and has no desire for children.
Katsa hates being a tool for harm, but she doesn’t hate her own abilities. She isn’t a thug, but she isn’t fragile either. Using her Grace to protect others is fine. She and a few trusted others have formed a council intended to assist those in need. While on a council mission to rescue a king’s kidnapped father, Katsa meets another graced fighter, Po. He follows Katsa and the two team up, eventually romance blooms. But the real story here is Katsa’s struggle to become her own master. Because of her deadly Grace, she must have mastery of her own emotions and reactions. She wants to break free of the capricious King Rand who uses her as a tool, and she want to ensure her freedom in the future. The right of self determination is generally not granted to either women or Gracelings in Katsa’s world. Katsa, though, has the ability to enforce her desire for freedom. Katsa and Po have Graces that could have made them monsters if they weren’t better people.
Katsa and Katniss came into the world in the same year, but Katsa has never reached Katniss’ level of fame. It’s a shame, because Katsa is wonderfully complex and strong. I’m not really sure why Katniss caught on and Katsa has not. Po, on the other hand is a little too perfect. He is handsome, smart, witty, accepting of Katsa, and never feels threatened by her superior prowess. Po is also Graced, and in contrast to a really creepy villain, rarely seeks to use his Grace against others. He’s a good character, but being perfect makes him a little shallow for my taste. One of the difficulties in fantasy fiction are the names. Po is a dumb name. I have no room to throw stones here, because one of my nicknames is “Ro,” but Po is still a dumb name. It’s not any dumber than Peeta, but I had a hard time taking him seriously. I understand why fantasy authors make up names, but it can still take one right out of the world.
Dumb names aside, Graceling is a fun and worthwhile read. And you can feel good about thumbing your nose at fundamentalists with antiquated ideas about the role of women in the world.