A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine let me borrow a book; the German edition of The Graceling by Kristin Cashore. Considering that I don’t have much to do at the moment while waiting for my Master programme to start, I figured I’d give it a try. (Therefore, I’m always grateful for recommendations, just so you guys know… 😉 ) I’m glad I did, which is why I’d like to share this enthusiasm with you.
(Naturally, spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to keep it low. Also, since I read it in German, some names or expressions may be wrong.)
The Graceling Realm trilogy is set in realm consisting of seven kingdoms. Each of the books has a different (female) protagonist, but they are all connected across the decades by the main antagonist. In those realms, some people called Gracelings are born with an extreme, specific skill of varying degrees of usefulness – people Graced with swordfight or mind-reading, but also Graced dancers, cooks, or people with entirely random abilities that are of no use to anyone, such as opening their mouth extraordinarily wide – you name it, there doesn’t seem to be a limit to your imagination. The skill develops in the younger years when a Graceling’s eyes start to change their colour. Because they have two different eye colours, Gracelings are easily recognised and in most kingdoms, they are sent off to serve the king with their skill. It can even be some kind of a stigma because most people feel uncomfortable around them.
The Graceling (German: Die Beschenkte), the first book in the trilogy, deals with Lady Katsa. She is widely feared because she appears to be Graced with killing, which is why her uncle, King Randa, has forced her to act as her thug against her will for many years. Katsa doesn’t have many friends and is generally unsociable because people tend to avoid her. Her only way of independence is the council she has created with a few friends; a group of people trying to fight injustice, including the injustice done by their own king. One of her missions makes her the acquaintance of Bo, a Graced prince of the kingdom Lienid who is looking for his kidnapped grandfather. After she defies her uncle for good and leaves his court, they make their way to the kingdom of Monsea, where they have reason to believe that things are not quite what they appear to be. They realize that its ruler, King Leck, is Graced with mind-altering abilities that he uses to control his people, and try to fight his horrifying powers.
Fire (German: Die Flammende) is set in the past and sheds light on Leck’s childhood. It is set in a realm outside the Seven Kingdoms, and neither people know of the others’ existence due to the mountains that separate them from each other. This land – the Dells – does not have Gracelings, but Monsters instead: creatures of extraordinary beauty and unnatural colours that stun everyone who beholds them, and that can control other creatures’ minds as well. There are Monsters of any kind: rats, birds, horses, insects and so forth. The protagonist is Lady Fire, the last living human Monster who has lived her life in the shadow of her fathers’ cruel legacy; he was the Monster who controlled the former king to unreasonable and violent ends. After his death, the land is unstable and on the verge of war with their neighbouring lands. Lady Fire, grown up far away from the capital, is finally asked to come to – reluctantly – aid the king with her mental powers. In due time, she becomes a valuable asset at the king’s court, uncovering intrigues and aiding in the war. In the course of the events, she meets the boy Leck, who came to the realm by accident when he was a young child. Despite his age, he has already fully embraced his Grace and becomes a danger to the realm.
The third book, Bitterblue (German: Die Königliche) is set eight years after the events of The Graceling unfold. The protagonist is Bitterblue, Leck’s daughter who became queen after his death when she was only ten years old. Now, at 18, she is still trying to pick up the pieces of the kingdom he has left her. With the whole kingdom traumatised by Leck’s tyrannous reign and after 35 years of being controlled and lied to, people are eager to move on, unable to deal with the horrible things that have happened in the past. But even after his death, the consequences of his actions are present and Bitterblue is desperately trying to make sense of the last 35 years as well as the present – and together with a few of her closest friends, among whom are Katsa and Bo, she uncovers escalating intrigues, mysteries and secrets that have kept her kingdom in disarray for too long.
A fascinating read…
I have to admit that I had some trouble with the first book. I hadn’t read anything in German for quite a while, so it took some getting used to, and the first half of the book was generally a bit more exhausting than the rest. The writing style and structure was a bit awkward in the first half – it may have been partly because it was a translation, which in general was really well done, but also because it was generally written awkwardly sometimes. Maybe they were just starting problems though. Another aspect that made it hard and frustrating to read was Katsa’s character, who is so awkward and (socially) naive that it made me cringe. (She greatly improved in the later books.) Quite often, I wanted to punch her for not seeing the obvious; mostly, though, I thought it was so ridiculous that I was just laughing at her for not seeing certain things (that, incidentally, everyone else in the book already figures out within a few seconds). She seemed quite a bit Mary Sue to me at the beginning though, but then again, maybe all of them have a healthy Mary Sue-tragic-past thing going for them – but it works for them.
For that reason, I wasn’t able to enjoy the first half of the book quite as much as I’d liked to. That changed soon, though, and I practically gobbled up the second half within a couple of days. (What followed was the furious and eager reading of the second and third books of the trilogy.) By the end of The Graceling, I was both shocked and fascinated with the way the story unfolded. I utterly adored the character of Fire in the second book, which was a joy throughout – well written, well planned, and full of twists and surprises. In fact, I was so enthusiastic about the second book that I was disappointed when I had to start the third one, away from the magical world of the Dells and the enthralling character of Lady Fire. Plus, it was much more interesting to read about a part of Leck’s past than it was to read of the world after his death. However, I soon warmed up to Bitterblue and followed her adventures eagerly, suffering with her and feeling just as much suspense and exhaustion as she did.
There are a few things that fascinated me most about this trilogy: first of all, a world in which there were Gracelings gave you unlimited possibilities and an abundant source of inspiration. Secondly, the different perspectives that were given in the books were refreshing and just made me want to read more, uncovering more secrets and understanding more about what was going on. That was especially the case in the second book in the parts that dealt directly with Leck’s growing up and his interactions with Fire on the rare occasions when they meet, and in the third book throughout. Bitterblue is almost as clueless as the reader, although she doesn’t understand many things that the reader already had access to in the second book. It is quite refreshing and gives you this odd sense of satisfaction (yes, over a fictional character, I know, but still) to know more than the character does. Pictures and statues of Monsters, who Bitterblue believes to be fictional but the reader knows to be real; a picture of a red-haired woman that Bitterblue believes is made up as well, whereas the reader recognises her as Lady Fire; the understanding why Leck was so fascinated with the Dells that he tried to re-create their world in his kingdom – all this dramatic irony is a huge part of the reading experience of the third book. Of course each of the books has romantic components as well, which are not completely random but also relevant to the story. Maybe their usefulness and logic made even the romantic part so enjoyable for me. I normally tend to avoid overly romantic stories, but the distribution of “intriguing story” and “love story” was well done here. And with such fascinating and lovable characters, it’s a joy to read of their romantic involvement and heartbreak as well.
Leck – a Graced monster
The main reason for my fascination, though, is the character of King Leck and I have gotten on many friends’ nerves by randomly talking about him even though they had never even heard of the books. His character concept is so simple and yet so powerful: a character with the ability to lie and therefore control people’s minds with his words alone. With such a character, you can do just about anything – and do it convincingly. Now, Leck is a sadistic, violent psychopath who abuses his power – then again, I’m wondering if there is a way to have this Grace and not be this corrupted. At any rate, his past and his Grace define him and make him a believable character. As Fire shows, he was a horrifying person even as a child, without even the slightest sign of remorse or empathy. The way he treated his father still baffles and appals me, but it didn’t really surprise me, either. His need to control people, to be in charge, is very strong, and it is appalling to what lengths he goes to get what he wants. As king, he abuses his Grace completely and gives his kingdom a reign that is too horrible for them to even want to try to remember in the later years. He abuses and maltreats people and animals, enjoying his power over them, while at the same time trying to recreate his own past in the Dells in his kingdom. He conducts terrible experiments, for instance, and generally just takes what he wants.
I am a villain person throughout; I tend to enjoy villainous characters much more than the protagonists, but even I was equally fascinated and disgusted by Leck – something that rarely happens in this intensity. It means there is some amazing penmanship involved, and I could probably go on for hours and hours about how much I both love and hate this character.
A great part of my reading experience is that all the books have the same antagonist, but the protagonists deal with him in very different ways. They have to face him in fundamentally different situations and witnessing them learn how to deal with him is thrilling. Each of the women, then, deals with Leck in her very own way. It makes each story unique. They all struggle not only with him, but also with who they are, which makes them protagonists that the reader is very much able to connect with. Leck plays a pivotal role in all the books and holds them together – and that while being practically absent for most of the time. He rarely appears in person, but his presence can be felt throughout the books, in the shadows of the more immediate antagonists. His villainy is subtle, cruel, effective. The books are delicately interwoven, which becomes especially obvious Bitterblue. Leck, then, is the central point of all the stories and continues to be the antagonist even after his death. Especially the third book, in which he is not physically present at all because he’s already dead, sheds some gruesome light on his psyche and personality and makes him more understandable, and ever more revolting.
I could go on, but I’ve probably said more than enough: the Graceling Realm trilogy was a real treat to read and I’m glad I got the chance to do so, even though I was sometimes sceptical of its writing style. It was very inspiring and entertaining and robbed me of my sleep – I hadn’t had those moments of “I’m so deadly tired, so I’ll just read another chapter – oh, wait, now it’s been four chapters and it’s way past midnight” since I read the Hunger Games. It was delightful. I can definitely recommend it to any fantasy lover (and also non-fantasy lover, to be honest). I haven’t been this entertained and deeply lost in a book in such a long time – although I’m not sure the age it has been categorised for (I believe 11-14 year olds) is appropriate at all.