Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Po, the punching bag [Graceling Review]

Graceling By now you must have heard about this book, Graceling by Kristin Cashore. If you haven't then now you have. I've had the American cover as my profile pic since I first heard about it in 2008 but I only just read it last Saturday. What took me so long? School. Masters. Exams. Stuff like that.

So after a long wait, I finally trekked to my local Borders in Birmingham and bought me a copy of Graceling. I tell you, I was entertained. It's been a joyous ride, one that I'm going to miss. Damn you, Kristin. Damn you!

In Graceling there are seven kingdoms ruled by seven kings, and in all of these kingdoms there exist certain people who possess disparate eye-colours. These people are known as Gracelings. A Graceling is someone gifted with an extra-ordinary talent called a grace. Graces can be mundane, like being able to climb any tree, being able to cook really well, being able to run fast, and the like. They can be useless, like being able to talk backwards. Or they can be dangerous – being able to read minds, being able to fight like no other ordinary person, etcetera.

Katsa, our heroine, is graced with fighting. She can beat anyone, kill anything, and she does it with fluid dexterity and creativity. There simply is no stopping this chick. But Katsa has a problem. She's the King's tool for destruction and she doesn't like it one bit. So in attempt to right the wrongs she's been forced to dump on the world she initiates the Council, a secret organisation tasked with helping people. Nice, huh?

Enter Po, a man who Katsa encounters on a mission that takes her to the prison of one of the seven kingdoms. Although they don't start out as friends, their relationship develops and Po soon becomes Katsa's official punching bag. So humble is this bloke that he is willing to take blows from Kasta's fists on a daily basis. He is bruised and broken after each fight yet he keeps coming back for more. And he smiles about it too! Yes, gentlemen, the feministic vibe is very strong in this book.

And yes, the character-names in Graceling are a little odd. Not bad odd though. It's just Kristin Cashore's way of introducing herself to book lovers. You normally expect fantasy books to have names like Eragon, Aragon, Baragon, Lalagon, Shortgungon or something like that. You don't expect Po, Oll, Leck, Birn, Thigpen, or Greening Grandemalion (OK, allow me to say WTF here).

Graceling's story is rather straightforward. Too straightforward. There are no twists, nothing that will cajole that elated and surprised wow from you. The intrigue begins from page one and halfway into the book you know who the baddy is, because our clever heroine and hero, Kasta and Po, figure things out early on. At some point I thought maybe Cashore would do a 180 and weave the threads of the plot to give a new outcome but nothing of such happens. It's not entirely a bad thing, as the plot in itself hooks you from start to finish.

The finish, however, is where Graceling's grace fails it. The villain meets his end in a somewhat lacklustre fashion and in his second appearance. Alas, Graceling is anticlimactic. This is a common problem that plagues most YA books where you have a very, very, very powerful main character (Katsa) and a very, very, very powerful villain (???). You expect some kind of massive, explosive epic battle and all you get is a muffled poof. Disappointing.

Characters are well drawn out and believable, though not all of them. Meet Bitterblue; ten-year-old princess with a cute name, but very implausible as a human being. She talks like she's 30 and behaves like she's wooden (shows very little emotion, particularly for a ten-year-old).

Marriage. Kids. Ah, yes. The main controversy that spawned from this book. Everyone was talking about it when the book came out last year. I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Katsa is against marriage or bearing children, and she does neither in the book's entirety, albeit she falls in love with Po. Po accepts her choices without much of an argument and tells her that he will take her the way she is.

For me this is Graceling's biggest problem. It's not Katsa's odium for marriage or having kids. It's Po. It's Edward in Twilight. It's the innumerable male characters in YA novels today. Why is it that nowadays female writers create great male leads only to bastardize them later so that these men/boys can fit into their boxes of weird and flawed fantasies of how they think men should behave towards women? And seeing as how women don't generally like how men are in real life readers are sure to get a healthy dose of Edward-esque clowns.

That's right. Edward does everything for Bella. Everything. The bloke has no sense of direction. No life. He's a robot designed to indulge Bella's every whim (and vice-versa). Po too. Built for Katsa, this one. The man started out great, and then from nowhere he's like, 'Yeah baby, I totally agree with your no marriage/no baby logic. You're right. I mean, I feel marriage is supposed to be a wonderful union between two people who love each other. In fact, my parents, brothers and their wives are a pretty good example. But f@&* how I feel, because I'm all for you, babes. I was made for you. You complete me.'

Huh? First he generously donates his body for Katsa to molest on the training ground, and now this?

Katsa was born a pariah, a hardened, adroit killer. Of course she wouldn't want marriage or kids. I completely understand that. But Po, born a prince, born into a family of love, a family with small shortcomings – yes – but one that still adores him, and he doesn't want marriage and children? He must have a very good reason for that, but – oh no! The book doesn't say.

Hang on, did you say it's because he loves Katsa? Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't love the chief ingredient that pushes men like Po to marry and make babies?

'I told him I'm not going to marry you and hang on to you like a barnacle, just to keep you to myself and stop you from loving anyone else.' Katsa's words to Po. Translation: sex with you is awesome, hun, but you're free to do it with someone else if you want, just like I'm free to jump into the sack with another man too. Understand?

'It's alright, you know. Other people don't have to understand.' Po's reply to Katsa. Translation: babes, if I slept with someone else you'd smash my head like a tomato, so I'd just agree with every BS that spews from your mouth and stick with you until you tell me to sod off.

Po doesn't even try to convince Katsa. Either he's afraid of her or he's really a daft robot with the grace of looking and acting somewhat human. I remember him asking her to marry him once. Immediately she says, 'Screw marriage, and babies too,' he goes, 'Yeah, screw 'em all. Let's go train. After you've rearranged my bones with your hands we can have sex again.'

Grow some spine, mate.

Seriously, you have to wonder whether Po and Katsa are in love or in lust. It didn't seem like love to me, especially after considering the excerpt I posted above.

I'm going to pretend that Po's stance on all of this is temporary. Let's be honest, guys, if you fell in love with a hot chick and she told you that marriage and kids were a no-no but sex was a yes-yes, would you turn her down? Nope. Not me. Nuh-uh. I'd tell her what she wants to hear, which is, 'Baby, I couldn't have said it any better. Marriage and babies are evil,' and jump right in.

If I read Bitterblue (the sequel to Graceling which comes after Fire) and find Po still yapping on about how he's cool with not marrying Katsa... Epic fail, Ms Cashore.

In spite of all this, Graceling is a great book. The world Kristin Cashore has created is addictive and blossoms with life, adventure and wonder, and you always feel like you're right there with Katsa through every battle, every pain, and every happiness. Kristin Cashore's voice is new, true, strong, unique and sweet, and I look forward to reading many more of stories with weird character names (Magalusomaduoeomon, anyone?) from her in the future.

In fact, I need Fire right now. Damn it, Kristin, what gives?!


Characters: 9/10

World Building: 9/10

Prose: 10/10

Plot: 8/10

Final Score: 9/10

PS: my grace is pissing people off. What's yours?