Author: Kristin Cashore
Rating: 3 stars
Middle-of-the-road reviews are the hardest ones to write.
Negative reviews are the easiest. This is an upsetting thing to admit for a person who basically tries to be nice, but if there’s an element of a book, be it style or characters or plot, that I don’t like, it is easy to tear that book apart. Being balanced and fair and not going overboard can present their own challenges, but I will never run out of words.
Glowing reviews are pretty simple. Either I flail and gush and implore you to go out and read this book immediately, or I am able to hold myself back just enough to rationally dissect and discuss what I think makes a read so great. Again, I never run out of words.
But a middle-of-the-road book? One that doesn’t have great faults, per se, but just feels kind of…flat? That’s hard. Because how do we talk fairly about things that don’t inspire passion?
Which is all a very long way of saying that Graceling, the fourth book I read for the TBR Pile Challenge, was kind of…just okay. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. And I struggled trying to figure out how to put that into words.
It took me a long time to read Graceling. Weeks. (It doesn’t take me weeks to read anything). I just could not get interested. It took me almost 100 pages to really feel invested in the novel, which is about 90 pages too long, and by that point I was not looking forward to any marathon reading sessions or book binges to finish.
Lady Katsa is born with an extreme skill called a Grace, which makes her extremely adept at fighting. At first a pawn of her uncle, a king, Katsa breaks away from him and starts on a journey with her lover, Prince Po, to learn more about her Grace and save a kingdom from dangerous, mind-controlling enemy.
I think I was initially wary because Katsa is the Super Special Girl. The one who doesn’t have female friends because, psh, girl stuff, and who is alluring and attractive to every male in existence because of her Super Special Magic Eyes. I feared a love triangle. I feared a makeover scene. YA tropes have made me weary, and wary, and for a long time the text didn’t give me anything to alleviate that.
It did get better. I got to liking Katsa after a while, and Po. There was a lot of harrowing scenes when Katsa took charge of the princess Bitterblue, and while she pieced together the fact that her Grace was not exactly for fighting and more for making her Pseudo-Medieval MacGyver. Then a middle-aged badass lady pirate showed up, and I was incensed. Why couldn’t we start with the middle-aged badass lady pirate? Why did I have to sit through whiny teens for so long? And then the long-built-up confrontation was resolved in about three paragraphs and I was left blinking, wondering what the hell the rest of the book was supposed to be about.
I think it was the worldbuilding that made Graceling feel most weak to me. I just could not get lost in this world because it felt…flimsy. And it’s very odd–there’s no science to this, and I feel like a weirdo to even be bothered by it, but the names of things felt deeply, deeply stupid. I have sat through some really strange fantasy worlds with really strange names. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these that I can point to, but they all just felt off to me. The countries–Nander, Wester, Estill, Sunder? Just call them North, West, East, and South if that’s what you want to convey. All the capitals are just “some dude’s name” city– Randa City, Birn City, Thigpen City. I longed dearly for a possessive of some kind. And the humans names were even weirder. Something about it all just threw me out of the story every time I came across a new character. It is such a strange, nitpicky thing to be bothered by, but it bothered me nonetheless.
Are these reasons to hate a book? No, and I didn’t hate it. Do lots of people love Graceling? Yes. Is it okay to be indifferent to a book, even when lots of people feel passionately about it? Sure. It just means that the mysterious alchemy of fiction didn’t mix for me in this case, which is kind of a bummer, but there’s always another book on the list to look forward to.