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Kushiel's Dart
Jacqueline Carey
Into the Closet: Cross-Dressing and the Gendered Body in Childrens Literature and Film (Children's Literature and Culture)
Victoria Flanagan
Graceling - Kristin Cashore Probably more of a 3.5, but I'm more inclined to round down than up for this one.

Katsa is a Graceling, so identified by her mismatched eyes and special skills. Ever since the age of eight, when she killed a cousin who was threatening her, people have known that Katsa's Grace is killing. Her uncle, King Randa of the Middluns, has used her all these years as a kind of savage dog, to strike fear into the hearts of any that oppose or displease him. Then Katsa meets Po, a fellow Graceling, and is swept up into a conspiracy that will uncover truths darker than anyone could have realised.

Okay, so, I've heard a lot of bad things about this book and that put me off reading it for quite a long time. And there are some major problems with it, so I'll go through them first.

A lot of the criticism I've heard about this book is about the extreme feminism. Okay, so Katsa doesn't want to get married and hates wearing pretty dresses. And, all right, she repeats that she is never going to get married a number of times. But, honestly, I didn't really feel that any of this crossed into 'extreme' territory. Katsa wasn't a man-hating lunatic, and there was no man-hating going on throughout the novel. In fact, some of the most likeable characters were men. So I don't really get the whole 'extreme feminism' criticism, but, you know, in a way, Katsa was a bit of a 'strong female' stereotype. Would it kill an author to have a strong female who has pride in her appearance, or has no problems with the idea of marriage?

I didn't like how Katsa treated her horses, as if they were just objects to get from place to place on. This is a problem with Katsa, though, not the author. There are quite a few occasions where Katsa is called out on how she treats horses, especially by Po, but she just doesn't listen. To be fair, she doesn't really understand the whole concept of exhaustion, because she doesn't tire. She gets better at understanding what other people may be thinking or feeling as the book goes on, but still doesn't really grasp that the poor horses need rest.

Her Grace may make her a bit of a Mary Sue, considering the fact she doesn't tire, she doesn't hunger, she barely feels pain, she heals quickly, etc etc, but actually it also completely flaws her whole outlook on the world. She doesn't understand that other people have basic needs she doesn't, until it is physically pointed out to her. She comes across sometimes as a horrible bitch, forever pushing people harder, to go faster, or she will leave them behind, but it just doesn't occur to her (it seems) that they cannot physically keep up with her. That they need to eat and sleep. (So, actually, I'm not complaining about her Grace at all. It makes her physically quite unbeatable, but the trade off is this total lack of awareness of other people, which I think Cashore handles well.)

And Katsa does grow in her awareness of her Grace, of herself, and of other people (though... not horses), hence I've shelved this as a bildungsroman.

The thing I don't understand about Graces is that they seem to be entirely inconsistent. There are some people who are Graced with cooking, or swimming, and these are talents that non-Graced people can work on. So at first I thought that a Grace was just kind of like an innate/natural talent. Then, there's a girl in some guy's house who has the Grace of mindreading. That is not a talent. That is a power. So which is it, Cashore? If you have a magic system, there needs to be a set of rules that is stuck to. You can't really compare swimming and mindreading. You don't get superheroes going, "Yeah, my superpower is cooking." This really did bother me. Graces should be talents (which ordinary people can cultivate, if not to such an extent) or powers (which ordinary people can't dream of). Not some of each.

It doesn't make sense for people to be frightened of a Graceling who is amazing at swimming, for goodness sake.

The climax was also another irritation for me. It was too easy. It was over too quickly. It was as though the main villain was a helium balloon, and in the end all he did was deflate. When we were introduced to him, and we learned of his Grace, he was actually pretty damn terrifying. I was imagining all these scenarios and then... pfft. Damp firework.

For all its faults, there was a lot of things about this book that I did like.

Firstly, it was highly readable. By which I mean the sentences flowed easily and I didn't have to puzzle over words and syntax and wasn't bored by long passages of exposition. So, you know, it had that going for it.

Secondly, I really liked the romance. It was two people who never meant to fall in love with each other, but did, and you can see how much Katsa struggles with it, because it goes against everything that she has ever wanted for herself. Also, the sex scenes were handled marvellously - at least, I thought so. They are not too explicit, yet do not shy away or fade to black. They deal with the pain of losing virginity, and the emotions that come along with it.

I also liked Po's character, even though he has two stupid names (Po, and Greening). For similar reasons, I also loved Po's brother, Skye. The Lienid just kind of have an easygoing attitude that endears me to them.

I really liked the concept of the Graces, but I just wish they had been handled a little differently. I do love the idea of the Graces presenting as heterochromia, though.

Overall, this book was a good read and, although the main character was really rather unlikeable a lot of the time, you shouldn't let that put you off trying it.