A Willful Woman…

Thoughts about books from a romance addict.

A Few Thoughts on Graceling and Fire

on March 18, 2014

I feel like I’m going to turn off every single reader friend I have with this statement, but Graceling was the most disappointing book I’ve read since The Duke of Shadows.  Again, a fantastic first half, and a lousy second half.

Katsa and Po were wonderful characters; it’s still very rare to see a fictional woman who’s so incredibly powerful, and a fictional man who has no problems with that. Things are carefully set up to provide some balance, but even so, Katsa will always be the more powerful. But the second half of the book is all survival adventure, which I found so tedious.  Something about the character Bitterblue really rubbed me the wrong way (I hope this issue won’t survive into her book.) And I thought it utterly sucked that the plot put Katsa in the mothering position she had always vehemently rejected — complete with major sacrifice — even if only temporarily.

The prose was always a bit on the flat side — this made itself really obvious when I was initially listening to the audiobook, all the sentences in a row that start “she did this, she did that.” I didn’t mind when I was reading about Katsa and Po, but it failed in making the Katsa and Bitterblue sections interesting to me.

Fire on the other hand… although I didn’t find Fire and Brigan quite as brilliantly fascinating as Katsa and Po, this is one of the best YA books I’ve ever – well, listened to. I love the way Cashore sets up a fantastical situation and then really explores how it might affect a person. The moral dilemmas facing Fire are intense and not easily resolved.

The way sexuality is treated is fantastic — Fire completely owns hers, and it doesn’t control her. She has no trouble separating sex and love — or for that matter, affectionate love and romantic love. As an unwitting object of intense desire, she has clear ideas of who the right person for her would be, and she finds it in someone whose love is unselfish and not possessive. I often give YA books I’ve read to my teenaged niece, and I have no particular qualms about giving her romances, but I don’t think I’ve read a book that made me think, yes, yes, my niece must read this. All teenaged girls should read this. Make that all teenagers.


4 responses to “A Few Thoughts on Graceling and Fire

  1. AJH says:

    Usually when I read YA these days I’m basically thinking “do I want my god-daughter to read this”. Which … is probably deeply annoying. But I would totally give her these books. And then she’d probably refuse to read them because Books Adults Give Young People are invariable hated by Young People.

    For what it’s worth, I do see your reaction to Graceling. I enjoyed it a lot – I thought it was a fun action-adventure type thing, with a kick-arse heroine, but it is written in quite a pedestrian way, and compared to Fire it’s a much blunter, less sophisticated book. But, hey, it is the first. I didn’t actually see Katsa as taking a mothering role with Bitterblue – I saw it is a more protective/warrior type role, even though it entails sacrifice. Power is obviously a huge theme in the books, and I saw the scenes Bitterblue as Katsa reclamation of her own strength – something that she chooses to use for good, whereas King Wossname was trying to twist it (and Katsa herself) into a weapon for his own use. Since Bitterblue’s actual biological mother gets her away from Leck (with attendant sacrifice) … it’s not like Katsa is filling an absent role.

    In fact, Katsa’s severely limited when it comes to emotional support type / nurturing type behaviour, which is a feature of her character across all three books. In BITTERBLUE it’s clear that Bitterblue does love Katsa, and Katsa loves her back, but Bitterblue is achingly lonely for any sort of … constant love, I guess, and Katsa is just unable to provide it. And I don’t think she’s ever condemned for this, which is one of the things I really like about these books. If you want someone to get you over a snow field alive, Katsa’s your woman. If you want to cry on someone’s shoulder about the empty spaces of your life: absolutely not.

    I … didn’t feel Bitterblue was particularly *there* in Graceling. I can remember being desperately invested in her staying alive because Katsa was … so I’m not sure whether you’d feel more warmly to her in her own book. I liked her a lot – she’s uncertain, lost, and achingly lonely but I guess BITTERLBUE is a book about recovering from abuse – civic, and personal. I really like it, and while it’s less engaging than FIRE and less action-packed than FIRE, I think it’s got the same depth as FIRE, and explores similarly complex themes.

    FIRE is my favourite though. It’s astonishingly powerful. And I think it builds on the same interests as GRACELING (power, sexuality, love) but addresses them in a more sophisticated way.

    Um. I should shut up.

    • willaful says:

      Never! I love your commentary. And you make me want to read Bitterblue now.

      I think my niece actually reads the books I give her because we have similar tastes. (How embarrassing.) With my son, I’ve learned to carefully handpick them for optimal likeability potential, then place them by his bed, to pick up or not as he chooses. It often works!

      I no longer try to choose for anything other than whether I think he’ll like it — okay, I still stick the occasional book with an autistic character in, just in hopes. I was so pleased to discover that The Popularity Papers, which have been indeed, quite popular, are chock full of Gay Agenda. 😉

    • willaful says:

      I’ve finally read Bitterblue, and found it somewhat frustrating, but very interesting. I didn’t have the problem Kaetrin did with the end, because I see all three books as being about empowerment for girls (though not *only* that, of course) and part of Bitterblue’s empowerment — which she really has to *work* for, despite being Queen — is the understanding that your first love can be lovely without necessarily leading to a HEA. I love romance, but I’m quite happy to have the occasional YA book make that point!

  2. kaetrin says:

    Fire was my favourite of the three books. I was deeply sucked into the Brigan/Fire romance. I loved Graceling too but I liked Fire better.

    I loved that Graceling had an unconventional HEA for Katsa and Po – one which stayed true to her stated desires and didn’t diminish either of them. I don’t know that Bitterblue featured much for me as a character in Graceling though – she was more a piece to be moved about the board in order to tell Katsa and Po’s story for me rather than particularly interesting or deeply drawn. I quite liked Bitterblue in her book (although you already know what I though of Bitterblue I think :P).

    @AJH – if you want a shoulder to lean on, go to Po! He’s the emotionally sensitive one of the pair and I enjoyed how gender roles were subverted in the story without making Katsa any less a “woman” or Po any less a “man” (does that make sense?).

    I think the way power, sexuality and gender play out in the series is really interesting and I think Cashore does a great job of providing female heroine/role models who are non-traditional in many ways.

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