I made a strange discovery when I was generating the Amazon links for this book. Throughout the novel, I kept saying that everything I was reading was definitely YA, yet my Gollancz ARC claimed that Kristin Cashore's Graceling would be perfect for fans of Patrick Rothfuss. Plodding on, I kept looking for a reason why they would make that claim. Interestingly enough, once I was done with the book I realized that it was marketed as a YA title in North America. Which, I believe, makes a lot of sense. I'm aware that there are a lot of differences between the British and the North American markets, yet it feels a bit weird that Gollancz is marketing Graceling as a work akin to those of authors such as Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch. Because it lacks the depth, the realism, and the grittiness to make it so.
Katsa was born with an exceptional skill which makes her feared throughout the land -- the Grace of killing. Well nigh invincible, at a young age she becomes the king's enforcer. But Katsa is also a secret agent of the Council, a shadowy group of men and women who are the forces of good in the land. During a mission to rescue a kidnapped foreign monarch, Katsa stumbles upon a mysterious chain of events which seem to make no sense. Investigating further, she will uncover intrigues that will set her against her own king and send her on a quest to unearth the mystery of a one-eyed figure.
Stylistically, Kristin Cashore's tale bears resemblance to Joe Abercrombie's The First Law. Character-driven plot with minimalist worldbuilding pretty much describe Graceling in a nutshell. Unlike Abercrombie, however, Cashore's debut is indubitably YA in style and tone.
The concept of Graces appeared interesting at the beginning, and the author makes a good job of describing the whole process. Alas, the whole thing loses some of its luster when we discover that one can be born with the Grace of sewing, jumping high, or similar talents. As I mentioned, the worldbuilding doesn't intrude on the story and more or less remains in the background. Which is too bad, because at times Cashore's prose can be evocative, and it would have been interesting to discover more about the world she created, as well as the various societies populating it.
Endemic to YA books, the politicking makes little sense. Too simplistic to be realistic, it lacks depth and sometimes you just shake your head in wonder. Then again, when I was a young teenager, politics in a fantasy novel were probably the last thing I paid attention to.
Typical to YA novels, the characterization are a bit clichéd. Everything is too black and white, with no room for shades of gray. What Kristin Cashore does well is create endearing characters, even though they are quite predictible. Still, she came up with an engaging bunch that makes for easy reading. Katsa, the main protagonist, is a cross between Drizzt Do'Urden, the Terminator, and Nynaeve al'Meara. There's a definite sense of "girl power" in this one, and the story is told in a very contemporary voice. Hence, though it seems to be aimed at a female teenage readership, it is a world away from similar works from the 80s by Mercedes Lackey, Andre Norton, or Marion Zimmer Bradley. This being a novel written by a female author for a young adult audience, you know that there will be a love story. Enter the extraordinary and secretive and handsome Prince Po, and there you have it. Though you see it coming from a mile away, this cheesy love story nearly killed the book for me.
À la Salvatore, Cashore can write some thrilling battle scenes, and there are plenty of those in Graceling. Though evocative, the narrative can be juvenile at times, and the same can be said of the dialogues. Still, the author keeps the tale moving at a brisk pace, and other than the love story between Katsa and Po, Graceling is a quick read, especially if you prefer action over depth.
In the end, Kristin Cashore's Graceling is a fast-paced and accessible read. The book should appeal to fans of writers such as Maggie Furey, Trudi Canavan, and Elaine Cunningham.
The final verdict: 6.75/10