I do not like romance. I never have and probably never will. Stories about lust and passion and people sheathing their swords in other people’s scabbards have never appealed to me because they always focus on the physical side of relationships, even though there’s so much more to a good relationship than just excellent sex. I can easily sum up mainstream romance with one word: superficial.

Think about it. When was the last time you came across a romance-centric story that didn’t fixate on the physical side of things? What about a romance where the participants take time to build up their relationship so that it’s lasting and wholesome? What about a romance that has no sex involved? Can you name me one love story wherein one of the participants is irredeemably and undeniably ugly (Shrek doesn’t count for Shrek is a very handsome ogre).

When I first read Graceling by Kristin Cashore, I knew it would be a romance. The book was a birthday present from my best friend who is very into romance, and the cover blurb was pretty typical of regular fantasy romance fare. Even so, I decided to give Graceling a try, expecting the worst, and was very pleasantly surprised.

If more romance novels were like Graceling, I might actually enjoy the genre. And if more feminist-friendly fantasy had female protagonists as strong and as relatable as Katsa, I think I would be a very happy reader.


In the world of The Seven Kingdoms, there are people gifted with extraordinary powers who bear eyes of differing colors. These people are the Graced, and they are both feared and barely tolerated based on the usefulness of their Grace.

Katsa, our protagonist and niece to King Randa of the Middluns, possesses the Grace of killing. Even among the other Graced, she is feared, and the only reason Katsa has been allowed to live is because her uncle finds her Grace to be most useful at keeping his underlings in line. So long as she obeys her uncle and carries out his orders, Katsa is tolerated and allowed to live at court.

Because of her Grace, Katsa has lived in isolation for much of her life with only her cousin, Raffin; fight trainer, Oll; nurse, Helda; and the underlord Giddon close enough to be called friends. This all begins to change when the Lienid prince Greening Grandemalion, who prefers to be called Po, comes to Randa’s court, seeking his missing grandfather.

The Technical Aspects

The language used in Graceling is simple, straightforward, and easily accessible to the causal reader. You will find no purple prose or thesaurus abuse in these pages. The overall syntax and sentence structure, on the other hand, could use a bit of improvement. Cashore is a bit too fond of sentence fragments, and this results in an occasional feeling of choppiness, especially at the beginning of the book. In contrast, some of her other sentences can be quite long and a touch rambly, and I had to go back and reread a few of them a couple times. Both these complaints are easily overlooked once the story gets going, however.

Naming conventions, though not particularly original or unique, were consistent throughout. Details on the politics and geography of The Seven Kingdoms were scant and a bit simplistic, as were details on Graces. This lack of detail actually worked just fine for Graceling as none of the above were the main focus of the story. Still, I wouldn’t have minded a bit more exploration into Graces as they are a very interesting and unique concept, and Cashore has obviously put a lot of thought into their workings.

What really makes Graceling stand out, however, its characters. All the characters are distinct, and the main ones are both likeable and compelling in their own right. As Graceling follows Katsa, it is no surprise that she is most obviously the strongest and most developed character, though Po is just as equally developed and strong a character. Truthfully, the characters are what really carry the story from simplistic to worthwhile, though the minor characters (Leck and Randa in particular come to mind) are more caricatures than anything.

Overall, the pacing was excellent. Flashbacks and musings on the characters’ pasts, emotions, and motivations (primarily Katsa’s) were incorporated smoothly into the narrative without bringing the pacing to a screeching halt or feeling like infodumps/wangst sessions. The entire narrative was soundly grounded in Katsa’s point-of-view, and there were no sudden jumps to omniscient. In addition, there was very little, if any, filler, and the sequence of plot-important events progressed at just the right speed.

Main Themes

The main theme of Graceling is Katsa’s struggle to gain and maintain control over her own life. Although she is the best fighter at court, although her reputation as a killer is known throughout The Seven Kingdoms, Katsa lives at the whim of her uncle, King Randa, and cannot disobey him without the risk of losing her life and what little freedom she has. What makes Katsa unique among other female protagonists in the same vein is that she is not truly aware of her situation at the start of the story, that she comes to realize it over time, and that she has empathy for other women in her predicament. The last point in particular is noteworthy, simply for the sad fact that most “strong” and “independent” female protagonists in fantasy are often shallow, selfish shells of women who view other women as less than human.

It is Katsa’s realization that she has allowed Randa to control her for so many years which spurs her to cling tightly to her independence, to refuse to marry the man she loves, and to eventually open a school for women to learn self-defense rather than rely on the men around them for protection. In a world where women essentially become the property of the men the marry, where women are expected and encouraged to be wholly reliant on men for everything, Katsa’s actions are quite revolutionary, even if we, raised as we are in this modern world where women have been pushing for equality for generations, do not think so.

My Thoughts

After rereading Graceling for the purposes of this review, I’ve come to the conclusion that Graceling is one of those books that you need to read in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate; even so, Graceling manages to be quite enjoyable regardless of how you approach it. When I first read Graceling more than a year ago, I was expecting a fantasy romance, and fantasy romance is what I got, albeit one I enjoyed far more than I had been expecting. As I reread the book critically, however, I began noticing elements I missed or didn’t quite appreciated the first time around, such as the strong undercurrent of feminism. As I continued reading, my esteem for Cashore’s skill as an author kept growing; I have rarely come across a book with such a strong message of feminism that was not blatantly preachy about it. That the story itself and its characters naturally acted as a vehicle for the message is something quite remarkable in my mind. Whether or not the feminist message was intentional or incidental, Graceling remains one of the most feminist-friendly novels I have ever read.

In Closing

Graceling, though not without its flaws, is an excellent debut novel and is enjoyable on multiple levels, depending on your expectations. If you go in expecting a fantasy, you’ll find an adequate and well-paced, if not particularly original or elaborate, story. If you go in expecting a romance, you’ll find one that’s well-crafted, where both parties are equals, and where the physical side of the relationship is not the main focus. And if you go in hoping for a book for women written by a woman about a woman, you will not be disappointed. To nitpick at the flaws of this book is to do it and its author a disservice.


Wow. This review turned out more glowing than I was expecting/intending. XD


  1. Puppet on 8 February 2010, 21:38 said:

    Nice review, Kyllorac.

  2. Snow White Queen on 8 February 2010, 21:45 said:

    This sounds like a really interesting book, and your review brought up a lot of problems that I usually have with fantasy romances. However, if this book manages to avoid most of them, it’s definitely worth a try!

  3. The Angel Islington on 8 February 2010, 22:28 said:

    Sounds cool, though I picked this thing up like ten times at Borders and went “Pseudo-Fantasy/Feminism/StephMeyerwannabe”

    Apparently I was wrong, as I thought it was like a girl-power! version of Twilight or something.

  4. Kyllorac on 8 February 2010, 22:58 said:

    @SWQ – That reminds me, I wanted to have a whole section devoted just to the romance, but I would have just been gushing. XD The romance is quite literally perfect, but not in an irritating way. Although Katsa and Po’s strengths and weaknesses balance each other’s out perfectly, it isn’t all happy sunshine and daisies right away, and they actually have more in common than what’s apparent at first glance. Katsa and Po are truly equals in the relationship, and that’s what I really enjoyed most.

    @Angel – That couldn’t be further from the truth. Graceling is actually very good, though the first time I read it, I thought it just decent. It’s interesting how rereading this book a year later can change your perspective.

  5. Anonymous45 on 8 February 2010, 23:01 said:

    Beauty and the Beast. Romance where one of the ppls is horribly ugly.

  6. ZeeZee on 9 February 2010, 00:05 said:

    I liked Graceling too! Not for the romance though. More for the character development and occasional creepiness.
    In case you don’t know, she published a companion novel to it. It gives more back story and a bit more detail about Leck. I haven’t read it all yet though so I’m not sure that he is really an important character in the book.

  7. Kyllorac on 9 February 2010, 09:44 said:

    Beauty and the Beast. Romance where one of the ppls is horribly ugly.

    But not irredeemably ugly. Beast gets transformed into a very handsome prince in the end.

    In case you don’t know, she published a companion novel to it. It gives more back story and a bit more detail about Leck. I haven’t read it all yet though so I’m not sure that he is really an important character in the book.

    I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t been able to get a hold of it yet.

  8. Snow White Queen on 9 February 2010, 23:57 said:

    @ Kyrollac: Yeah, the whole ‘equals’ thing is the part that really irritates me about many couples that are simply pushed together. You have to ask yourself whether these types of people could actually get along.

  9. Steph the Sue on 14 February 2010, 07:55 said:

    I gave this book four stars.

  10. The Angel Islington on 22 February 2010, 17:18 said:

    Just got and finished this weekend. Great book, good plot twists that make you go “How did I not see that?” and a great message.

  11. Penny on 26 February 2010, 18:38 said:

    I wasn’t a huge fan of Graceling because I despised Katsa for some reason. That isn’t to say she isn’t a developed character, but something about her just rubbed me the wrong way. I was also annoyed with the way things went down with the villain because it was all very anti-climatic.

    That being said, I still gave the companion novel “Fire” a try and much preferred it. It gave more personality to Leck and the way the protagonist’s character arc was written was very well done IMO.

  12. Koko on 11 June 2010, 16:18 said:

    I liked Graceling, but I liked Fire much better, and while the book had many good elements, I was not the happiest person about how it ended.

    But I hope there are more books after Fire, I really liked her story world.

  13. jenny on 13 June 2010, 23:42 said:

    i have 2 write a book report, and i chose to write abt graceling. so far, i know this-
    In this world people, either at birth or later in life can develop a Grace – a skill at which they are exceptional. Men and women, girls and boys show this development by suddenly having their eyes change to different colours and then showing an aptitude for cooking or swimming or breaking in animals. Or, in the case of our lead character here, killing.
    Katsa became an assassin at the age of eight. Employed (or perhaps indentured) by her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns, her responsibility now, as a teenager, is to remove difficulties (or at least make negotiations easier) for her uncle. Her life is filled with annoying diametric opposites: she is pampered yet reviled, essential yet feared in her life at court. The Graced are, especially at court, seen as a lower order of society. Essential yet often ignored, their position creates for Katsa a very lonely life. Katsa despises her Grace and is afraid of her own skills, full of self-loathing and anger.
    then arrives our hero, Prince Greening Grandemalion, otherwise known as Po. Prince from another realm (albeit a lowly one in a crowded monarchic hierarchy), he is on a mission – to keep hidden his recently kidnapped (but rescued by Katsa on Randa’s orders) grandfather, Prince Tealiff, and discover who kidnapped him and for what reason.  On the way he coincidentally steals Katsa’s heart and together they go to resolve the main plot – saving Princess Bitterblue – from her evil father King Leck and creating world peace and harmony.