It took me almost no time at all to fall in love with Kristin Cashore’s main character, Katsa, in Graceling. In this book for young adult readers, Katsa is a strong — both literally and figuratively — sharp-minded young woman who practices a well-developed sense of ethics, knows herself, and knows what she wants (and more importantly, what she doesn’t want). What a wonderful role model she is for the female teenagers who are Cashore’s target audience! How much better it would be for a 13-year-old to read about this type of young woman than about some swoony female who falls for a vampire because he glimmers in the dark!
Katsa has a “Grace” — a special innate ability, as is evidenced by her eyes, one green, one blue. Her Grace reveals itself when she is 10 years old and a cousin makes sexual advances on her: she kills him. Swiftly, efficiently, and without thought, she smashes him in the face, pushing the bones of his nose into his brain. Everyone concludes that she is Graced with an ability to kill, though it also evidences itself with an uncanny ability to fight, to anticipate the movements of her enemies, and to avoid sickness. Still, others born with different-colored eyes are graced with such things as an uncanny ability to dance, or to swim like a fish; a Grace for killing is frightening to most, and her Grace therefore tends to isolate Katsa.
The logical thing for Katsa’s king to do in response to a child Graced with killing is to banish or kill her, even if she is his niece. But King Randa of the Middluns thinks instead of the use to which he can put her as an assassin or at least an enforcer, and keeps her close. He is not an evil man, but he is certainly greedy, and Katsa learns to hate the use to which he puts her. When he sends her to hurt one of his lords who has refused to offer up a daughter to an unsuitable marriage for which King Randa would receive the dowry, she must make a decision about whether she intends to live the rest of her life as a king’s instrument of power.
But that is only the beginning of her story. Katsa soon finds herself traveling with Po, a young prince from another country, to find out the story behind his grandfather’s kidnapping. Katsa tries her best not to fall in love with Po, because she has sworn never to marry or bear children. She falls nonetheless, but still manages to remain true to her decisions about how to lead her life, and how to make her life one with room for fully realized love.
This is what most impressed me about Katsa. Imagine: a woman who wants to remain wholly herself, for herself! Have you ever read about such a character in young adult fiction before? Heck, how often have you read about a female like this, of any age, in any fiction? I was even more amazed when Katsa was thrown into contact with a young child, a girl of 10 who needs her protection, and still doesn’t change her mind about bearing children of her own. Even today, one is considered unnatural for making such a choice. Cashore’s decision to write of such a woman in a medieval setting it strikingly imaginative.
Katsa’s quest becomes, as so many quests do, a voyage of self-discovery, though not in the traditional sense (that is, she does not change her mind about who she is, but instead discovers more about what she is able to do). In this story, she is the hero rather than the rescued. She does the rescuing. It does not make her male counterparts any weaker, but only makes her stronger.
I fear I am making Graceling sound like a feminist polemic. It is not. It is an exciting and well-told tale about a pair of fascinating characters, Katsa and Po, and the challenges they face. The supporting characters are equally well-drawn; Randa’s son Raffin, for instance, is essentially a scientist who seems to have missed inheriting his father’s greed and cruelty. Still, I find Graceling remarkable mostly because Katsa is such a strong character.
I wish I’d had this sort of role model to read about when I was a young teenager. For me, Little Jo from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was about the only example I ever read of a girl who wanted to do something with her life besides get married and have babies — and even she wanted to write in addition to getting married and having babies. The idea that a woman could eschew the role of wife and mother was never presented to me. Thank goodness girls today know that that’s a choice, and that women like Kristin Cashore are writing characters who aren’t afraid to make that choice.