January 10th, 2009

wardlock thinking

Grace of catfish. (4)

Graceling by Kristin Cashore.

The Saint of Killers
mutant with murder powers--
control freak. Damaged.

Hold on-- ha, I just through the blanket on my lap at Jenny (in bed) & said "netted! Gladiatoooor!" Okay, back to the book-- it is easiest for me to talk about problems I had with the book. Jenny loved it, so I signed up immediately to read it, & while I liked it, I didn't like it as much as she did. I want to talk about liking it first;-- I did really like it, & I don't want that to be lost when I complain about it. The issues I had with it were in no way damning, & are more just things that make me want to discuss it.

Katsa (don't call her catsup!) is "Graced," that is she is uniquely gifted with a power, like one of Marvel's mutants. Some are the best cooks in the world; some are Graced with knowing when storms are coming. Katsa is Graced with being able to kill everyone, easily. Not just one at a time; the is almost no amount of soldiers that can stop her. This is probably the strongest part of the book, this axiom; Katsa is very believably portrayed as being pretty much unstoppable. She is used by her uncle the king as a kind of enforcer, & in her spare stime she has a seditious secret society helping the little guy. She is an actually strong female character & not just because she's strong in the literal sense. Oh, & I really like the names of the kingdoms-- Middluns for the middle country, Wester & Estill for the west & east, Sunder for the south kingdom under the others, Monsea for the mountainous country bordered by the sea, that sort of thing.

Okay, now let me start complaining. She's psychologically screwed, & a big part of the book is unscrewing her. Her relationship with her uncle is emotionally abusive, & she starts off seeing herself as a killer, & little else, though more often than not she is able to refrain from killing her foe-- a kick to the temple, or what have you (actually, mostly kicks to the temple). As the book unspools, with the help of the support hero, she grows to understand that she's more than a killer. All well & good, & to tell you the truth, the flipping of the dynamic is really well done-- that is the next thing about the book that is exceptional, as in Rapunzel's Revenge. Saying reversal makes it sound like I accept that male hero/support female is the default: I don't. I recognize the cliche though, & I am happy to see it deftly used for better purposes. The support character, Po (don't call him Pooh!), is as Jenny said a bit Mary Sue; oh what a dreamboat! Really, their relationship is well & good up until it gets to a certain point. At that point, Katsa is a little bit unreasonably, irrationally control freak. Like, it vibes emotional trauma, psychological damage. & Po is the martyr who says that it is alright. I'm not sure it is alright. It adds to her character, flaws-- as they tend to do-- but no one seems to point out that she is being a little bit crazy. I actually thought this would be a bigger deal, to be fair, & it wasn't. More on that.

There are two other problems I have. One is paired with a plus, so I'll deal with it first. The villain is great. His power is creepy, & plays into the above mentioned weakness Katsa has, which is partly why her control issues bug me. They just really seem like they should be addressed. Still, the bad guy has a creepy thing going on that manages to increase drama. The macguffin works to redirect the story very nicely. The problem with it is that it excuses the kind of writing behavior that drives me nuts: allowing you, the reader, to figure something out way in advance of the characters. I'm sure there is a name for that kind of narrative irony & I don't like it. Oh really, he's got this glaring, suspicious detail? Well, lets not examine it! Well if it isn't A & it isn't B than it must be...D! Hey, what happened to C? Oh, lets not think about it! I actually think I have to pin this on Cashore, since the emotional cathersis Katsa has early in the book is drawn out in the same way. Katsa is the enforcer for the emotionally abusive king, okay, we get that. Then, the supportive character who makes her re-examine herself asks her why she hurts people for the king if she doesn't want to, especially since it isn't like he can make her. As you'd expect, shortly thereafter the king asks her to hurt someone who is not just innocent, but actually meritorious. &...it takes Katsa way too long to figure out that she should tell him to go stuff it.

The other thing that bothers me? We're meant to assume certain things, but we never see any evidence of them. The story takes for granted that women are treated poorly in the world, that they are dealt with as second class citizens. Except...every single female we meet is apparently too exceptional for this to apply to. Katsa. The captain of the ship. The princess. The queen. Even Katsa's maid speaks her mind. & oh yeah, birth control exists (which if you ask me, changes everything). & tying it to the above: Katsa doesn't want to get married. Okay, fine, but the reason why is because she need to be "free." She doesn't want to be socially constrained. Except...the man she would marry doesn't appear socially constrained. His family isn't socially constrained. The women are empowered (when the good king leaves, his wife rules), the Graced are accorded special honors, the princes are allowed totally free reign. & on top of that, the specific prince in question lives in a castle extra far away from the lack of social constraints, so he'll be even less constrained. Which leaves Katsa's statement about not wanting to be married seem, well, like her problem. Like she wants to prove the point more than she wants to be happy. We don't see marriage portrayed as a constraint, except for the one guy who asks her, who, while an okay guy politically, is also a dick. I am making too much out of it though, I guess? I thought this was going to end a little more star-crossed than it did.

See, as I said, I had some issues, but those issues are more things that make me want to talk about the book, which means I liked it. & mostly now I want to read Bitterblue when it comes out, even though there wil be an intervening book, which I'll probably want to read too.