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This review first appeared on subverting the text in June 2009.

Graceling, Kristin Cashore: It's time for another exciting installment of Renay Finds Gay Subtext Unexpectedly And Becomes Obsessed. First, perhaps I should tell you about this book I read that I liked so much I read it twice less than a month apart. This never happens, unless you're John Green, and there's only one John Green that writes fabulous, thinky YA and I am fairly certain that Kristin Cashore is not John Green! In fact, if she is, then John Green has been keeping some secrets! Huge ones! Shaped like a uterus.

Katsa has one blue eye and one green eye. Wait! I know what you're thinking: special eyes? Renay, are you trying to get me to read questionable Mary Sue fanfic? On any other day, you might be right, because I am tricky like that, but this is not that day. Katsa's blue eye and green eye mark her as Graced—Graced with the power to kill anyone in any circumstances. Because of her special Grace, her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns, kept Katsa from a small child as his personal, one-woman brute squad, using Katsa's skills to bully other lords out of money, property or to punish them for trespasses small and large. Katsa's reputation throughout the Seven Kingdoms is well-known. As the story opens, she is beginning to resent Randa for his orders and herself for being kept like a dog, so much so she has created a secret Council unbeknownest to Randa—a council that does good works throughout the kingdoms. It's these works that lead Katsa to the mission that will change her life.

Being Graced in this world is being special but also being shunned—Katsa's Grace of killing is more extreme than others, like swimming, or being excellent with numbers or hand-to-hand combat, but even with the benefit of a skill, being Graced isn't something a parent wants at all. People live in fear of their child's eyes changing.

"The innkeeper's sister has a baby of three months," Oll said. "They had a scare the other morning. They thought one of its eyes had darkened, but it was only a trick of the light."

Graced children are often given up to the king's use, but in Katsa's case she was orphaned rather than given, and when her Grace revealed itself, it was a boon to Randa. As Graced royalty but also a girl, Katsa has not led a normal life. The most interesting part of this book for me wasn't the romance, or the sweet action scenes, but was Katsa noting things about her world that bothered her—how she is a girl left to live outside the social structure while chafing for those inside it. For instance, after Katsa sees an incident with a serving girl being attacked:

"Is it your sister I saw serving drinks in the eating room?" Katsa asked.
"Yes, My Lady."
"How old is she?"
"Sixteen, My Lady."
"And you?"
"I'm fourteen, and my sister eleven, My Lady."
Katsa watched the younger girl collecting hair with a broom taller than she was.
"Does anyone teach the girls of the inn to protect themselves?" she asked. "Do you carry a knife?"
"Our father protects us, and our brother," the girl said, simply.
.... And wondered if other girls in Sunder, and across the seven kingdoms, carried knives; or if they all looked to their fathers and brothers for every protection.


How absurd it was that in all seven kingdoms, the weakest and most vulnerable of people—girls, women—went unarmed and were taught nothing of fighting, while the strong were trained to the highest reaches of their skill.

I loved the feminist themes in this book. Katsa's examination of the social structure around her that she had the ability to analyze because she was shut out of it by being Graced was fascinating. Her Grace caused the rest of society to shun her—even as a child she was largely raised by men until late in childhood, long enough for her to be Othered enough to not fit back into it, even though Randa forces her into dresses that she hates and parades her in front of his court. He doesn't do it to welcome her into it, but to further separate her—look at the lady killer in her gowns, doesn't she look beautiful—except most people are likely not seeing her as anything but an enforcer. Katsa never wants to re-enter the system and rightly so.

However, the writing left me wanting more—the narrative was a little distant. The third-person was not as close as I'm used to and there wasn't as much emotional connection between me and the text (because it's all about me). I'm not sure how this could have been fixed, really. Also, if I read another reference to "the child" one more time I might explode. The flow of the story was thrown off for me whenever the author referred to a major character in that way. It made Katsa seem emotionally distant in times when she shouldn't have been, when the story was saying she wasn't. The story said, hey! Katsa is totally engaged. The writing said otherwise, internets! I swear.

The romance was lovely. It's quite obvious from the beginning where it's going, and the surprises that crop up throughout the courtship were sweet. Oh, how I love well-done foreshadowing! I am a fan of the romance, especially the way Katsa tricks the system in order to remain true to herself, gaining her freedom for real, and always able to keep it by choosing to forgo marriage—a social construct that in the seven kingdoms can create a trap for girls and women. I was full of hearts over Katsa's choice. I was so full of hearts, once I went and looked for what other people thought of it (otherwise known as looking for fanfic) all my hearts DEFLATED. How sad is that, deflated hearts.

Stop! Are you ready for my controversial and tl;dr opinion?

The reactions to the romance skeeve me out. I am concerned about how many people (women!) feel a need a) rush and defend marriage, quick, because it's under attack by this awful anti-marriage character! b) start flailing about over sex outside of wedlock (boy, that's a fun word!) or c) go on and on about how women should be making the sacrifices in order to make the relationship deeper and more meaningful. I have examined several of these reactions and the more I read the more grossed out I became by this feeling that many grown women and many more (!!!) young women believe that marriage is some mark of sexual maturity. I do not understand why readers are taking Katsa's decision out of the context of her world and placing it into ours in order to judge her and be disappointed by her choice. Welcome to WTFville, Population: Me. I don't normally go around telling readers they're read the book wrong or have missed the point, but in this case I'm rocking the boat. Observe:

Graceling is in a medieval fantasy setting. There are dowries in this book! Dowries, in a medieval setting! In case people do not understand what this is or how it's used in the story, it's the money a woman's family pays when she gets married to pad the pockets of the new household (i.e. the man's pockets). It can come in the form of actual cash in a suitcase, some sweet loot the husband can auction off, or that best of all penis-enhancing items: land. Because the more land a man has, the bigger he feels! The more he owns, the more important he is! I remember my Medieval Europe classes and discussion of dowries. Boy, do I. I also remember how many antacids I had to eat!

NOTE: IT WAS A LOT. I could have purchased stock in Tums.

The fact that the setting of this book is so and there are dowries suggests that women do not have much, if any, agency. They are traded like stock and I would like to point out that women do not resemble cows at the worst of times. In the context of the setting, it is silly to pretend that it isn't a big deal that women are bartered or traded or used as chips in oftentimes deadly games of Penis #1 versus Penis #2 with the prize being marriage. Oh boy! How romantic. I believe it is safe to say that Graceling is not operating on 21st century sensibilities and to pretend otherwise is, yes, you guessed it, missing the point.

Kats'a world is not our world. Katsa's world is called the seven kingdoms, not The United States of America. Her world is one where marriage is a certain path followed by women because they have limited options. Katsa is not ruled by the same standards as other women. She is Graced; she is Othered. Therefore, she has not been on that path, trained and dare I say it, brainwashed to believe that the only path is marrying a man, running that man's house, bearing his children. It is obvious; we can see it in her language and the language of women around her. Katsa does not shop at the Gap. She kills animals and breaks grown men with her bare hands. She has been cast out of the system! Entering into marriage as royalty, even with someone who understands her, would cause her to be at odds with that system. It would be like women's rights marches, expect with swords and arrows instead of picket signs. There would probably be blood and guts everywhere. You're saying: start a revolution, Katsa! Have marriage your way! This is not Burger King, this is a man's world and it is obvious it is a man's world. I have read about how marriage takes two individuals and turns them into one and how unselfish giving yourself to another person is and how dare Katsa be so selfish as to value herself as a person over herself merged with a man and how the mere act of marriage creates another, different person through love (but only properly married love). Please note how if a woman merges with a man she creates a new person as if there's something wrong with the person she was! Are you fucking kidding me!

I'm so impressed by the depth of thought here! I am not sure how more offensive it could get. It suggests that marriage is the only way this can happen and that it should happen or else a woman is selfish and cruel to the poor, poor men. It also erases couples who cannot or possibly do not want get married (Raffin! Bann! Me!). Does this mean I can never reach the same depth of emotion as a couple who have shoved cake in each other's faces in front of friends and family? For Katsa, there is no becoming one with a husband because in her world that is not possible because marriage can be and is used as a system of oppression. It surprises me how many women reading this book are in such a hurry for her to re-enter this system that shunned her, abused her, Othered her, made a child killer out of her for the mere concept of "marriage" when she would have more outside the system. It's not just about the man, internets! It can also be about the system that benefits the man over the woman, and the system that will not bend for the will of one Graced woman, the system that would attempt to mold her into her proper place, Graced or no. She would change in fundamental ways that have nothing to do with the man by accepting her place in that system that had treated her so badly. Attempting to judge her for her choices by removing the context of her choice is pretty terrible, actually! I feel a game of Let's Blame the Victim coming on. Should I go get my Sexism Bingo Card for that or should I just start repeatedly punching myself in the face? Either way, I'm going to be in pain.


Now that I have that out of my system, let's go back to the important part: boys kissing! Guys, Raffin and Bann are totally making out on work tables, and knocking over jars of herbs and medicines, and sleeping curled up together in Raffin's work room, sweaty and naked and probably very pleased with themselves for fooling everyone with their "friendship" that disguises a Big Gay Romance. I searched the author's site for proof, but she is tricky and smart, and doesn't answer questions about subtext. It's probably a good idea she made this policy, because she knew the slashers would be along eventually and would start e-mailing her about it in order to get fodder for awesome fanfiction. Speaking of awesome fanfiction, I am upset that none exists for Raffin and Bann and their awesome affair that is doomed because I have this strange feeling that boys making out is about as popular as women having their own power in the seven kingdoms. What hurts the most isn't that Bann doesn't have any speaking parts or that we only see their interactions through Katsa's lovestruck gaze, or that Po knows something but won't share it with Katsa because he values Raffin's privacy, and Bann's, but that I won't know for sure until the follow-up novel to Graceling comes out. Fire is a prequel and Bitterblue is in the process of being written and I'm going to have to suffer for at least another year before I know—possibly longer. Excuse me while I sob into my hands.

On the plus side, at least I can write lots of boys kissing in the meantime until I get jossed.

Other favorite quotes:

Randa hadn't spoken to her, hadn't even looked at her, had only said her name. He loved to brag of her, as if her great ability were his doing. As if she were the arrow, and he the archer whose skill drove her home. No, not an arrow—that didn't quite capture it. A dog. To Randa she was a savage dog he'd broken and trained. He set her on her enemies and allowed her out of her cage to be groomed and kept pretty, to sit among his friends and make them nervous.

He laughed. "I know you're teasing me. And you should know I'm not easily humiliated. You may hunt for my food, and pound me every time we fight, and protect me when we're attacked, if you like. I'll thank you for it."
"But I'd never need to protect you, if we were attacked. And I doubt you need me to do your hunting, either."
"True. But you're better than I am, Katsa. And it doesn't humiliate me." He fed a branch to the fire. "It humbles me. But it doesn't humiliate me."

She would go to his bed at night .... and lie with a man who considered a scratch to her face an affront to his person. A man who thought himself her protector—her protector when she could out duel him if she used a toothpick to his sword.

Graceling: yet more Feminist YA, if a little shaky at times and unsure of itself, but very awesome. I honestly cannot wait to see how Cashore manages to live up to it with Fire.

Date: 2011-08-22 08:33 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Minor point of connection: Someone said she thought my friend might have a child outside of wedlock the other day and my jaw, on the floor. She wasn't making a negative judgement (at least I assumed not, because her sister has a kid and isn't married), but obviously that sounds like such a judgey word. It makes me want to attack my skin with a wire brush, just like spinster does.

Date: 2011-08-31 06:47 am (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
People don't say they're going to enter into wedlock so much now, more that someone will operate (have kids, just generally frickin exist DO NOT GET ME STARTED ON THAT TRACK)outside of wedlock. So maybe it's more about implying that people will be locked out of the glowing wedding haven? I may be stretching the point and seriously I like when other people get happily married to great people, but culture is messed up when it comes to single people and I am kind of having a moment about it.


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