Reviewing ‘Graceling’

Notleia note: I originally wrote this for Speculative Faith (with less swearing), but they decided it wasn’t a good fit for them exactly because of the reason I thought so. More on this at the end of the review.

After feeling burnt out on young adult fantasy, I saw Graceling by Kristin Cashore recommended on Amazon and checked it out. I was surprised at how much I liked it. It wasn’t complex in plot—or character, really, but it was character better fleshed and more distinct than your average YA pulp.

Our main character, Katsa, is pretty much a Katniss from Hunger Games, except better explored as a character and with no love triangle bullshit. (YAY!) (Tangent: Seriously, Collins, if the romance crap is barely on Katniss’s radar, why the hell should we the audience care? And I know Katniss is not supposed to be very peopley, but Hare Krishna fuck, just how stupid is she if she couldn’t notice that Peeta took the supposed romantic ploy a little too seriously? Frothfrothfroth.)

Anyway, in the fantastical universe of Graceling, some people are born with superhuman talents in something: singing, cooking, doctoring, swimming, whatever. The superhuman talent is called a Grace, and the people who carry them are called Gracelings. And Lady Katsa, niece to the king, is Graced with killing.

Katsa is a social pariah because of it. Her uncle uses her as his bullying stick on the less doormatty nobles, and she’s closed off and closed up. But she has a few friends, and with the help of them she made an underground society that tries to help people. Their newest project is to free the grandfather of a foreign royal family, and they—Katsa in particular—get pulled into a dangerous conspiracy bigger than they knew when a foreign prince comes to court.

I mean, this isn’t a Game of Thrones level of plot complexity (or grimdark), but the focus is more on Katsa and her development from being a Terminator into someone who has feelings and relationships. For my anime-watching bros out there, this is kinda thematically similar to Neon Genesis Evangelion, except on a smaller scale and far fewer characters are screwed up about sex.

That brings us to the giant, awkward obstacle to recommending this to Christians [and therefore on Speculative Faith]: Teh Sechs. It isn’t anywhere near softcore, but it gets premarital all up in here. Since the Christian reaction to this is no, no, bad, fingershake [yup], I’m going to switch to a feminist perspective to explain the good parts about this.

The sex is shy at first, but deliberate and consensual. Consent is something that’s thoroughly glossed over in Christian culture because it’s pretty irrelevant when you’re not supposed to be sexing in the first place. It seems much more important for the sex to be sanctioned than consensual, and that’s pretty horrible when you think about it.

Another feminist fist-pump is the sympathetic treatment of Katsa’s strong desire to NOT be married or have kids because she has trouble being that intimate (non-euphemistically) with people. Usually the women who don’t want cozy home life with bouncing babies are supposed to be shrieking bra-burners or unnatural or something. And even when she does develop an intimate (euphemistically and non-) relationship, babies are NOT in the plans; she takes an herb to prevent herself from getting pregnant. And this is treated as okay, and that is awesome because I can tell you from experience that it’s pretty damn annoying for people to expect you to be baby-centric because double X-chromosomes.

In Christian culture, sex is still treated as though it’s innately dirty and sinful and has to be redeemed with ceremonies and licenses and babies. (See: Every candy bar/chewing gum/cup of spit analogy ever.) I would like this to not be a thing that exists anymore. (The innately dirty/sinful/gross thing, not the ceremonies or babies. If you want to do that, you have the “sure, whatever” of a random stranger on the Internet.)

But the reasons Christians should read Graceling is 1) It’s good; and 2) It’s mostly the same thing as the superheroish “use your powers for good” stuff, which always nice. [I still stand by this. Bonus: I also recommend it to non-Christians for the same reasons.] And “good” in this case is pretty unambiguous because I think everybody can agree that helping people is good. And I think everyone can agree that helping people with butt-kicking is entertaining.
I have to say, these are some of the better fight scenes I’ve read. Text is not suited to that kind of stuff, and amateurs describe too much and bog the story down, but Cashore strikes a pretty good balance between detail and snappy pacing.

And did I mention no love triangle bullshit? Such a relief. (I mean, I’m a bit of a sucker for the kind, sincere dude, but Peeta just came off as too much of a goober. Give me Captain America any day, especially when played by Chris Evans. And Chris Evans’s pecs. Or Rory Williams. With Chris Evans’s pecs.)

Notleia note #2: Yeah, they pretty much proved my point on Christian culture’s thoroughly glossing over consent, because apparently talking to young adults about sex in any other way besides “no, bad, fingershake (until marriage)” is “unchristian/unbiblical.” You’re not being part of the solution, SpecFaith editors.
I asked Burnett to at least type out loud that he thought consent was a good thing, because I wanted some reassurance that he’s not a creep. I’m not sure how much and in what ways he differs from the hidebound old farts who set themselves up as the arbiters of the Christian tribe, who are disturbingly often creepy (see: Doug Phillips, Bill Gothard). Good news: He thinks consent is awesome and that there’s a lot of crap floating around. Not-so-good news: I can’t tell for sure what this means, but he wants to double down on “Biblical” teaching about sex, and I can’t help but translate this as doubling down on “no, bad, fingershake.” Whatever it is, I have doubts it’s anything that would be terribly effective because I can’t tell that he understands what the actual problems are.

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3 thoughts on “Reviewing ‘Graceling’

  1. I would like this to not be a thing that exists anymore.

    That sentence is sermonizing.

    It sounds like the feminist/consent stuff is more important to you than the actual content of the book, which makes the review seem weak. I’ve read reviews written from liberal perspective, containing substantive feminist critique — see the venerable e-zine Strange Horizons. Those reviews may be no less critical of opposing views than yours is, but they are less direct, also longer and deeper.

    I’m not criticizing you for being mad about Christian kids being lead to believe that rape in marriage is acceptable — fighting against that hegemonic blindness could be a worthy crusade. However, it’s not an appropriate crusade for a book review.

    You’re being “Wrongfully Pragmatic.” Pretend for a moment that you’re a conservative evangelical/fundamentalist, and you submitted a review to a website dedicate to a liberal, feminist interpretation of Christianity. Your review would have spun off one of the book’s themes to tell the website’s community that they need to be saved or they’re going to hell.

    To me, it appears that this is what you have done, in reverse. By posting your addendum publicly, I assume that you’re soliciting feedback, so take this comment as you will.

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    • I think it’s a worthy crusade, even in book review form, but I will admit that if you’re coming here just for book review it’s not necessarily a welcome surprise. (Though I’m hardly the only one in the blogosphere who does it.) But they did prove me right, so I take a little (okay, more than a little) vindication in that. And despite all the later reassurance in that one comments thread, I still have my doubts as to how much they’re seeing because it’s not an issue they seem to pay attention to.

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  2. Yeah, I’d quibble with Kristin over sexual mores but Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue are fabulous books (as evidenced by my actually buying physical copies of them). The only sex encounter that really bothered me happens in Bitterblue.
    On a random note, I don’t think Kristin thought through how useful the artsy type graces could actually be. Like a dancing grace would give you incredible skills in a variety of areas (understanding of music and rhythm, agility, memory, body awareness, body language, etc.)
    Anyhoo, read and review them all! 🙂

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