I haven't read many young adult novels since growing out of the target age range, but on occasion one catches my attention--The Hunger Games because of its enormous popularity, and then Graceling, because of the impassioned debate over whether it's a good example of feminism. How could I possibly not read the book that inspired that
Graceling turned out to be a lot of fun. The protagonist, 17-year-old Katsa, has a variety of superhero-like powers, and since one of them is killing people, the king (her uncle) has been using her as his thug. But even before the book begins, Katsa starts fighting back by creating a secret organization to help people in need. The plot involves her doing basically what you would expect: breaking free of her uncle, learning to make friends, falling in love, fighting an evil king. This isn't new, and ordinarily I'm leery of superhero characters, but here Katsa's powers make the book great fun: I didn't realize how much I would enjoy a story about a heroine who's never in fear for her own physical safety. We get to enjoy the crazy challenges the story sets for her, from fighting mountain lions to crossing infamous mountain passes in the dead of winter, but the real tension comes from her internal struggles and her efforts to protect other characters. It's--dare I say--empowering. And the characters are endearing; the book made me smile several times.
But (of course there's a but), despite my enjoyment, Graceling is not a book I'm likely to recommend to other adult fantasy readers. The characterization, while adequate, is not especially deep; nor is the writing anything special. The worldbuilding is incredibly thin: just another quasi-medieval setting. Even the country names are things like Wester, Middluns and Estill, conveniently corresponding to their placement on the map. We don't even know if this world has a religion. The only hint of culture is in the Lienids' rings (which are a cool idea). And the faux old-fashioned dialogue sounds unnatural: people say things like "Whatever shall I do?" and "I'm ever so slightly dizzy" non-ironically.
I did like the romance, although I was only mildly invested; the author surprised me by not opting for endless misunderstandings and stupid fights. Unlike many other readers, I think the relationship works well for a YA book. The relationship is founded more on shared goals than staring into each other's eyes. It's nice to see a love interest who doesn't feel threatened by his girlfriend's powers, nor does he have a misguided need to protect her. Instead he says things like "I'd like you see you defend yourself for real, fight someone to the death, for it would be a thrilling sight"--which is pretty cool (although the phrasing makes me cringe a little). And then the controversial bits: yes, there's sex; parents considering this book for young kids might want to consider that, but it's realistic and occurs at the logical point in the relationship, which I appreciate. And I liked that, despite falling in love, Katsa still doesn't want marriage or kids. Many real people don't either, and so it's always good to see variety in fiction. Besides, she's still a teenager, and lives in a society where women are the legal property of their husbands! The backlash doesn’t make much sense to me--I'm surprised by the number of people who either seem to think the author is trying to preach Katsa's preferences for everyone, or criticize the book because their own opinions about marriage and children differ from Katsa's. (Or go totally off the deep end claiming the book is "man-hating" despite the fact that Katsa's love interest and most of her friends are male.) Seriously? I'm not that interested in marriage or kids myself, at least at this point in my life, but it doesn't bother me when a protagonist wants them (as long as the book doesn't beat me over the head with "all women need these things to be fulfilled!" a la Seer of Sevenwaters).
Finally, on whether this book is good feminism: you’ve probably guessed that I think it is. Some reviewers interpret it as saying you can’t be both feminine and a strong woman, which I too would find problematic, but I see nothing like that here. Katsa cuts her hair short and despises dresses, which is perfectly valid, but she doesn’t look down on women who make other choices. She criticizes society for not teaching women self-defense, but that’s not an attack on the women themselves, whom she wants to help. Seems pretty feminist to me.
At any rate, while I’m not sure I’ll read the sequel, this was a fun book and I see why its intended audience seems to love it. If I had a 13-year-old niece, I’d definitely give it to her.