Graceling (#1); Fire (#2); Bitterblue (#3)
By Kristin Cashore
In the Seven Kingdoms, there are occasionally those born with a Grace – a special heightened skill marked by eyes of different colors. The skill can be anything: fighting, playing an instrument, baking bread, math. In Katsa’s case, it’s killing. And though she’s good at it, she doesn’t enjoy it. This has led to a life of bitter service as an assassin and spy, under the hateful thumb of her uncle the King. She has few friends, and life looks like it will continue as it always has, as unhappy as it makes her. Then she meets Po, a prince from a neighboring kingdom. Katsa starts to realize her Grace might not be as simple as she thought, and that life doesn’t have to be what it’s been. It’s part love story, part adventure, part intrigue, and quite good. Katsa can, of course, be a typical teenager at times, but that’s part and parcel of a YA series.
In Fire (book #2), Cashore takes us across the impenetrable mountains to the kingdom of the Dells. It is a land of horrifically enchanting ‘monsters’ – creatures with a hypnotic power to make other creatures and people adore them. They are beautiful and brilliantly colored, and can be any species. Fire is the last human monster. The rest of her kind have been hunted down and killed because of the awesome power they can wield over their fellow humans – power that has often been used cruelly and sadistically. She does not want to wield that kind of power, and so has lived hidden away in the woods with her adopted family, and covers her tell-tale beautiful hair whenever she has to go out in public so she doesn’t inadvertently ensnare someone. What follows is a story about Fire learning to accept her own nature and realizing that to embrace who she is doesn’t mean becoming a monster in all senses of the word. It’s again part love story, part self discovery, and part political intrigue. It also sheds some light on the back story of book 1. It was quite good as well, but in a different way from book 1. Fire felt more grown-up than Katsa.
In Bitterblue (book #3), we pick up 10 years after the end of book 1, back in the Seven Kingdoms. The kingdom of Monsea is knitting itself back together after the events in Graceling, and this book is mostly about its young queen figuring out how to be a queen and help the process of healing. She and her advisors don’t always see eye to eye, and she slowly realizes there’s a lot more going on in her kingdom than she’s been told. And, of course, another love story. (That’s not a complaint, I like love story plotlines). This one dealt pretty heavily with victim psychology. It was good, but I didn’t necessarily enjoy it as much as the others. I did like the end, and how characters and events from all the books finally came together. It was a satisfying conclusion to the series.
And now to get on my soapbox a bit.
*****Warning: spoiler-ish bits below*****
This series has come under a lot of flack for supposedly promoting unhealthy relationships and decisions. Apparently some people are confusing ‘unhealthy’ with ‘non-traditional’. In the first book, Katsa grew up under an uncle who treated her as something he owned, and worthless in her own right. She escapes that situation, but it leaves her with an understandable reluctance to ever put herself under the power of a man again, even through marriage (in her world, wives are their husbands property). The fact that she chooses to be in a loving & committed relationship with Po without marrying him (and that he agrees to and understands this) is apparently the ‘unhealthy’ part. Can you feel the eye roll from where you’re sitting? In the 2nd book, the monster Fire has learned too well what cruelty her kind can sink to – the harshest evidence that of her own father’s actions. When she finds love and begins to think of a future with a family, she has to make a hard decision between her own maternal yearning, and knowing she’ll pass on her addictive/ensnaring nature to any children. She chooses to not have children – and hey, guess what? Her loving partner supports that decision, and no one else makes a fuss because it’s none of their business. Adult readers who have a problem with this are the same adults who think they have a right to an opinion on someone else’s personal life decisions (abortion being the obvious corollary to the real world). Again, there’s nothing ‘unhealthy’ about this, it’s simply not the ‘traditional’ choice. The 3rd book is a little less weighted, with Bitterblue facing an age-old tug-of-war between duty and love. Surprisingly for a YA book (where love usually wins out), she chooses duty – to help rebuild her nation in the aftermath of her psychopathic father. Again, nothing unhealthy in this.
In each of these cases, we see a teenage girl making a mature, informed decision about her own life. And that’s apparently what all of the fuss is about, which I think is ridiculous. In fact, I like these books all the more precisely because each girl takes the non-traditional route. It’s a rare book, let alone series, that shows girls they can have a full, meaningful life outside of marriage and children. You don’t need to marry in order to have a loving relationship. You don’t need children in order to feel fulfilled. There is nothing wrong with either of those options (I myself plan on doing both), but they aren’t pre-requisites to happiness or love.
*steps off soapbox*
Overall, as you might have guessed, I quite enjoyed this series, and would recommend it.
Have you read these books? What did you think?
I give it 4/5 stars.