Book Review: Graceling (or, Not Your Run-of-the-Mill “Strong Female Character”)

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“Usually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged by male energy.” -Bjork

The quote above applies to books, too. I just listened to author Kameron Hurley (in this interview) discuss that, unfortunately, “strong female character” has become a trope of its own; it’s so over-used and bloated that it’s morphed into giving a woman a gun/sword/super powers, having her perpetrate some traditionally masculine violence, and generally just take ye-olde-fantasy-male-hero character and give him lady parts. I’d add to this that those lady parts usually come with extraordinary beauty (she can be strong but she has to also be sexy) and vulnerability to soften her just enough. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of books that do this. But I really, really, really appreciate that Graceling does not.

Graceling has been out for a while, and it’s not necessarily obscure, so I’ll say briefly that I thought the writing was excellent, the story fascinating, the world immersive, and the characters compelling. But below I’m going to outline what made this book one of my favorites of all time, and the things it does that make it truly unique to so much of what I read. Minor spoilers proceeding.

  • Katsa doesn’t, and won’t, marry or have children. She is adamant; she never has wanted to, and she will never. She is the one who proposes to Po that their relationship remain outside of wedlock, with the freedom to go their own ways. That word “wedlock” is so appropriate here. The romance is still there, but it makes so much sense! If you lived in this world wouldn’t you want the same thing?

“If she took Po as her husband, she would be making promises about a future she couldn’t yet see. For once she became his wife, she would be his wife forever. And, no matter how much freedom Po gave her, she would always know that it was a gift. Her freedom would not be her own; it would be Po’s to give or to withhold. That he never would withhold it made no difference. If it did not come from her, it was not really hers.” – Graceling

  • There is no love triangle, and after Katsa refuses Giddon’s offer of marriage, we don’t have to listen to him moping or guilting. Katsa cannot bring herself to love Giddon, in fact it never enters her mind, because he does not and will never think of her as an equal. No loving the bad-boy ragebeast here. Giddon represents everything Katsa’s society uses to yoke women: ridicule, diminishing her accomplishments, warning her that no one else will ever offer her marriage, protection, emotional abuse. Giddon is so uncomfortable with Katsa’s strength, skill, and with Po treating her like he would a serious opponent that he can barely watch her fight.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

  • Po truly treats Katsa as an equal, in fighting and in love.

“She could not steal herself back from Randa only to give herself away again — belong to another person, be answerable to another person, build her very being around another person. No matter how she loved him.” – Graceling

  • Katsa doesn’t want to be a killer, and the revelation that she hates the violence she commits doesn’t feel like the Cashore softening or feminizing her to make her more palatable. Katsa plays the game, but she wants dealt out, freedom, solitude, friendship. This doesn’t stop her from seeing that women need to learn to defend themselves, and instead of marrying Po she determines she’s going to travel and teach women and girls self-defense.
  • Katsa does not care how she looks. No, really. She doesn’t. Other people remark on her looks, usually in proprietary ways, but she doesn’t preen, she doesn’t wonder what men think of her.

“Mercy was more frightening than murder, because it was harder.” – Graceling

Great writing, great world, great story. Dare I say, strong female characters. 🙂

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” -Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication on the Rights of Woman

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