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Review - Graceling, by Kirsten Cashore - Ed's journal
Review - Graceling, by Kirsten Cashore
There's a trap waiting for the unwary author. It's that of wanting to make their lead character someone likeable and worthy of respect. The reason it's a trap, is because it can lead to 'projecting' a strong and powerful lead character, who just gets on with things and saves the day. It's an even deeper hole to fall in in a fantasy setting (perhaps even more so than Sci-fi) because you've control of the rules of your world. You can make your lead character supremely powerful.

That's not always a problem, but you're making your life harder by doing so - because you can no longer tell a story of adversity and discovery and growth, without really layering the 'adversity' on thick. Which ... well, you still have control of the world, so you can just invent that adversity, but then you start getting dangerously close to breaking that suspense of disbelief implicit upon the reader.
Get two characters, and have one shout MY POWER IS 9000. And another shout MY POWER IS OVER 9000!. Yeah. Great.
So no one's really interested in Superman's fairly average day. Superman flying up a tree to rescue a kitten isn't a story, it's background flavour.

Unfortunately, I think that's the trap that this book falls into. The setting is one where some characters are 'Graced' with ability beyond normal, to supernatural levels. The Graceling of the title. This delivered a measure promise, as you can develop themes of unfairness, discrimination, explore the nature of what it means to be a person - when does one cross the line of 'being human' when blessed/cursed by magic?

Sadly, it doesn't deliver. The lead character - Katsa - is a bit of a Mary Sue. Doesn't make a mistake, has a Grace that means most of the challenges she faces ... well, aren't really. The love interest almost does the same thing.

It's actually quite a reasonable story, or would be if it weren't for the lead characters intrinsic awesomeness - so the antagonist ends up being inflated in terms of power level, to present a threat, and it just sort of strays into the realm where there's no real feeling of accomplishment with the plot resolution, because it wasn't - the power levels were too high, and one person just managed to get lucky. More or less, anyway.

And by the same token, there's not really much of a growth as a character, because she's already powerful, and moral, and the only real change is ... almost trivial as a result.

The eternal problem when writing your own universe - keeping it self consistent, and resisting the temptation to iteratively 'trump' the epic powerlevel.

Despite all that, I won't call it a bad book - I didn't take long to read it, and it was something of a light bite, but it's not badly written by any means.
It's just more the kind of book I'd leave on the shelf in the bathroom - ok to read 10 pages at a time whilst on the loo, and not the end of the world if you get caught short one day.


5 comments or Leave a comment
fishrgreat From: fishrgreat Date: February 4th, 2010 12:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree pretty much word for word with that. It's short and sweet and harmless but I'm not too bothered about reading it again. I have a copy knocking about somewhere...
jorune From: jorune Date: February 4th, 2010 11:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
"You can make your lead character supremely powerful.

That's not always a problem, but you're making your life harder by doing so - because you can no longer tell a story of adversity and discovery and growth ..."

That's part of the challenge behind writing for the superhero genre. Miracleman Book 4 (Gaiman) and Supreme (Moore) are interesting takes on the effect a supremely powerful being has on the world and their surroundings. Superhero as a mirror to humanity.
sobrique From: sobrique Date: February 5th, 2010 11:51 am (UTC) (Link)
Well, I agree. You can do a good story within that genre. The trouble is, when your epic fantasy strays onto that path, and you don't realise. I've seen it done, and done well, but ... it's just a different kind of a story. You can either tell the 'before they were famous' story - to an extent, this is what Dune, Magician, Enders game, Belgariad, The Name of the Wind and the ilk manage.
Or you can pick on some other part of the story to explore - places where they're weak, vulnerable, or faced some challenge that was just too much for them to walk over.
It's just in the latter, you really do need to ensure that your challenge presented is very carefully chosen, so as not to smell of inventing an arbitrary unstoppable force. Superior scheming and evilness works quite nicely, but is hard to write convincingly.
jorune From: jorune Date: February 5th, 2010 12:12 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm reminded of a joke comic strip which featured a Superman clone and his beau on the front cover "Pammie! It's only the first episode but already I'm facing my greatest challenge ever!".

Scheming against an uber powerful character can require very careful plotting and requiring that balance, I guess, is perhaps why successful murder mystery novelists are in high demand.
From: andalumeni Date: February 5th, 2010 11:39 pm (UTC) (Link)
I read this on my trip over to the US last year, and while it was easy to read, with a fairly well paced flow, the characters really didn't grab my interest that much - I did find it hard to care much about the outcome. While I don't regret reading it, I'm not particularly waiting for a sequel or other works by the author.
5 comments or Leave a comment