Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling received praise and awards upon its publication in 2008. The book takes place in a world where certain people, called gracelings, are gifted with extraordinary talent in one area. The novel’s heroine, Katsa, is graced with killing. Her uncle uses her as a weapon against his enemies, but Katsa eventually breaks free from his control in order to join Po, another graceling, on a quest to find out why his grandfather was kidnapped. On this journey, Katsa and Po become lovers, and they defeat a wicked king controlling a kingdom through his own unique grace.
The New York Times review of Graceling wrote, “[Katsa] overturns every biological reality and cultural stereotype of feminine weakness, which is a large part of her charm. She is the girl’s dream of female power unloosed.” The Kirkus review of this book called Katsa an “ideal adolescent heroine.” Readers and reviewers alike rave over the character of Katsa, but that left me confused. In my opinion, Katsa was the book’s biggest problem.
Katsa falls into both of the two most common stereotypes of the contemporary heroine—everybody is in love with her and she is a badass fighter. The first stereotype, the fact that everyone is in love with her, is very reminiscent of Bella Swan from Twilight, and it is just as baffling. Why does do the handsome, straight characters (Po and Lord Giddon) love her? Katsa’s only skill is murder. She struggles with the moral dilemma of her job as her uncle’s assassin, but even in her moments of doubt, she fails to show any real sense of compassion, pity, sympathy, or love. If she “overturns every cultural stereotype of feminine weakness,” she does it only through killing. And murder is anything but charming.
Besides the cliché of every male character falling in love with her, Katsa is also a skilled fighter. This is not inherently a bad thing, but it fails to make Katsa interesting or three-dimensional because it is ridiculously cliché. Having killing as a grace makes Katsa’s ability to defeat every opponent in a fight somewhat believable, but my suspension of belief is not that powerful. Realistically, a teenage girl can’t beat everyone in a fight, and I don’t see why all “ideal adolescent heroines” have to be the best fighters and always be better than the men. All that says is that women can only be heroes by becoming warriors; that the only way is to fight, but that isn’t true, especially for teenage girls coming of age today.
Katsa is a cliché heroine, but that isn’t her biggest problem. The worst thing about Katsa, and about holding her up as a role model for young girls (or anybody for that matter), is that she doesn’t love. She thinks she does, but she doesn’t even know what love truly is. Cashore writes, “Katsa sat in the darkness of the Sunderan forest and understood three truths. She loved Po. She wanted Po. And she could never be anyone’s but her own.” There is an inherent contradiction in that excerpt from the book. Katsa can’t give herself to anyone. She can’t trust anyone with her heart. And so she cannot actually be in love. Being in love inherently means no longer belonging only to yourself. Your thoughts, actions, emotions, and very being are intertwined with another person’s. Katsa can never be anyone’s but her own, and so she cannot love Po. By stifling Katsa’s emotions, Cashore reduces Katsa’s relationship with Po to nothing but lust, a passionate romp in the forest without trust, mutual care-giving, and love.
Graceling is an enjoyable read in many ways. The characters are not unlikable and the concept of a “grace” and how it is used is interesting, but Katsa is not a good heroine. She is cliché—male characters are falling over themselves to love her and she is a fighter, but the worst thing about her is that she cannot love. To uphold Katsa as a role model for young girls is to tell them that they can only achieve greatness by fighting and that they can only be worthwhile if men love them. It is to also say that love, true love that involves a level of trust and affection so deep that you are no longer only your own, is bad. Graceling teaches that love somehow deprives you of your own identity, that it is wrong to give your heart to someone. For Katsa, there is no love, no compassion, and no pity. There is only fighting—fighting against a loving relationship and the kindness found in a feminine identity. Is that what we want to teach young girls?