Showing posts with label Kristin Cashore. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kristin Cashore. Show all posts

Monday, October 1, 2018

Jane Unlimited by Kristin Cashore


Rating: WARTY!

After, Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue, I was a fan of Kristin Cashore, but that didn’t help with this novel, which bored the pants off me. Fortunately not literally. This is her first novel since the end of the Graceling Realm trilogy, and I have to say that, given the time it evidently took to write it, it wasn't worth waiting for. Evidently, it was planned as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story, and then morphed into a regular novel with five parallel universes that are Jane's potential directions, but I was turned off this long before that point. And how she's unlimited when there are only five options, I do not know.

Jane's parents are dead and her only living relative, her absurdly named Aunt Magnolia is also apparently dead after she went missing in Antarctica. One thing her aunt bequeathed her niece was the extracted promise that, if ever she received an invitation to visit the mansion named Tu Reviens (French for 'you come back'), she must accept it. Personally, that would persuade me to avoid it like the plague, but not Jane. When her erstwhile school friend, the absurdly-named Kiran Thrash, a bored, rich bitch, reconnects and invites Jane to visit, Jane accepts.

At that point - her arrival and first day at the mansion, this audiobook had become so utterly boring that I quit listening to it, which is unusual in a case like this, because as the blurb informs us, "the house will offer her five choices that could ultimately determine the course of her untethered life." Actually it offers her a choice between five options, but let’s not quibble about that! Normally something like that is really attractive to me - a story about someone's opportunity to change what’s happened - but I never read that far. I was pretty much bored to tears at this point and Rebecca Soler's reading of the audiobook would have made me want to quit even if I had been enjoying the story, so I gave up on it.

Based on the small portion I listened to, I cannot commend this effort. Hopefully Cashore will be back on form with her next effort, but the gods alone know when that will come out.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore





Title: Bitterblue
Author: Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Dial
Rating: worthy

This novel, right from the off, began well by looking better than Fire and much more like a worthy successor to Graceling. Unfortunately, like Ethan Hunt's gloves in Ghost Protocol it kept slipping alarmingly.

Bitterblue is the very young queen of the kingdom of Monsea. Now why in hell Cashore chose to dump that on her female hero is as disturbing as it is mysterious. She couldn't think of the word 'queendom'? And whats with everyone referring to her as Lady Queen? Seriously? Since when has there been a Lord Queen? (In terms of noble rank, that is!) Those missteps aside, however, she started out doing a great job and winning me over to Bitterblue's side.

Bitterblue is bored and finds being a queen tedious, especially given that she's beset by four antique advisers who ply her with endless work. Why she doesn't see something wrong with this to begin with is a mystery, and how King Ror (who supposedly set her queendom on a secure and rational footing before she was installed as queen) managed to bungle this so badly is a mystery, but it does offer a ready pretext for Bitterblue's adventures. She starts sneaking out of the castle and hanging out in bars, in disguise. No, it's not like that. The bars she visits feature story tellers, and she finds herself fascinated by how these fables which are related in the taverns differ from the actual facts which she knows.

Bitterblue is an interesting character, far more so than Fire, Cashore's previous hero, who I found a bit tedious at times. No, this novel is more like Graceling and Bitterblue is a charmer - smart, funny, curious about everything, and with a seriously funny sense of humor. Unfortunately, she's capable of being really stupid! It's inevitable that her curiosity and boredom will lure her into sneaking around where she isn't supposed to be, including those trips in disguise into the town and its taverns, but that's not where her stupidity lies.

As she undertakes more of these extra-curricular excursions, she becomes acquainted with the realities of life, as well as the unrealities: the weird things which are happening all around her of which she's been unaware - like people stealing gargoyles from the castle walls. Indeed, she befriends the very people who are doing the stealing, without at first realizing it is they who are behind it; then one of them gets into a fight and is stabbed, and instead of bringing the healer they demand she brings, she fetches the castle healer.

Bitterblue's adventures start with her nocturnal wanderings in the city, but her discovery activities are by no means confined there; however, it’s there that she meets Saf and Teddy, the two thieves, and their respective sisters, Bren and Tilda who are an item. Saf seems to have no vocation other than thievery which appears to be confined to stealing and returning items which King Leck had stolen from his citizens during his despotic reign. He also evidently steals some silver once in a while from shipments coming from the mines and going to the palace. Teddy's day job is running a printing press, but no one will tell Bitterblue what it is they print. None of these people have a clue who she really is. She fobs them off with a story that she works in the bakery at the palace which is how she knew the palace healer, and how she knows something of what goes on in the palace.

Bitterblue starts to discover that Leck made many changes during his reign, including changing funeral ceremonies, kidnapping many children for experimentation, and building bridges over the Dell river (which used to be called the Silver river); bridges which went effectively nowhere (there is only swamp on the opposite side of the river). It was on one of these bridges that he supposedly burned Ashen (Bitterblue's mother) after her death, rather than bury her, as was traditional before he came along. He also wrote diaries which have all apparently been lost, and compelled his groundskeeper to create topiaries which were often transformative in nature, such as one of Bitterblue herself changing from a girl into a castle. He hired a sculptor to create statues of this same nature, too - and then had the sculptor killed.

Katsa and Po (the protagonists of Graceling) show up at the palace, Po having installed himself already in Bitterblue's rooms awaiting her return one morning from one of her nights out. She seems not to be bothered that a guy will show up in her bedroom without even asking leave. Po is becoming increasingly depressed by the secrecy around his grace, wanting to reveal it to everyone. Bitterblue advises him to take it slowly. Later Katsa arrives and Bitterblue feels a bit left out by their obvious and total engagement with each other to the exclusion of pretty much everything and everyone else. Po and Katsa play only a peripheral role in this novel, which is all about Bitterblue.

Along with Po, Lord Giddon also shows up, and Bitterblue begins to form a friendship with him even though he's some ten years her senior. She begins to confide in him and ask his advice. She's invited to a meeting of the council even though she's technically not a part of it. This meeting reintroduces her to the library, which she visited often as a child, but which she has neglected completely since she became queen. She has a desk set up under a portrait of Fire, although she has no idea who the woman is or what her relationship with Leck was. She discovers that Leck destroyed thousands of books which the librarian, graced with an eidetic memory, is slowly and painstakingly restoring. Bitterblue takes one of his rewritten manuscripts to Teddy and bids him print it so it can once again find its way into public hands, but then she loses interest in this activity.

She finds she's slowly beginning to recall things from her childhood - either triggered by one or other of her new activities - such as visiting the library or learning to sword-fight, or which comes back to her in what she first thinks is a dream but realizes is actually a memory. She sets in motion several investigations: to discover how much Leck stole so that reparations can be made, to investigate how people were buried before Leck changed things, and to learn about solstice and equinox holidays which were banned after Leck came to power, although these investigations seem to disappear from the story as soon as they're set in motion.

Bitterblue feels like she has some bizarre pieces of a complex jigsaw, but she cannot figure out how they go together, and she learns that in addition to the secret society of 'restoration thieves', of which Saf is a part, there is also a counter-society of 'leave well alone' people, who do not want anyone digging into the past and unearthing painful and horrific memories of Leck's reign. There's an attempt by one of the latter group to kidnap Bitterblue, orchestrated by Lord Danzhol, who knocks out her adviser, Thiel, and tries to haul her out of the palace with him, but Bitterblue stabs him fatally. A graced woman called Hava, whose grace is to be able to effectively disappear into the background, was apparently an unwitting co-conspirator. She's still at large, and Bitterblue wants to track her down, although that plan also effectively fails.

By accident, Bitterblue visits Saf and Teddy on one of the quarterly holidays, which are still celebrated in secret by the populace. She learns this when she enters their premises and everyone is wearing colorful make-up and everyone is kissing everyone else. When Bitterblue kisses Saf, the kiss isn't at all perfunctory or ceremonial - it goes on and on and on, and later, it goes on and one some more in a graveyard on her way back to the palace!

Cashore, who had done such a sterling job with her writing overall, really lets the door swing open to Le Stupide when we start getting into page 250 and beyond, and that door swings right into her ass. I remarked earlier that Bitterblue is very smart, but she completely betrayed my confidence in her by being so alarmingly moronic at this point, that I very nearly wanted to disown her!

Let me lead into this by relating that after her night of kissing Saf in the graveyard, Bitterblue decides for reasons unexplained that she can never ever see him again. Very shortly afterwards, and completely on impulse power, she decides to visit the courtroom once more, and who should be on trial for murder but Saf himself! I'm sorry, but his was far too coincidental to suspend my disbelief. Her presence there could have been handled far more wisely. But it gets worse.

Saf is completely flummoxed (yes, flummoxed!) to discover that the wayward girl he's known as "Sparks", is actually the queen! Bitterblue discovers that he couldn't have killed the murder victim because that was the night she was with him sitting on the roof of the printing shop gazing at the stars. They ended up up there after running from a hunting party that seems to have targeted Saf for reasons as unknown as they are unreasonable. This targeting of Saf is a problem about which Bitterblue has done exactly nothing. Her ability to be both aware of appalling injustice and crime, and yet to take absolutely zero steps towards combating it is infuriating, and it’s especially irksome given that she's supposed to be developing feelings for Saf. Why has she not ordered patrols to police the city and reduce this kind of victimization and crime, thereby protecting the man with whom she's supposedly falling in love? No explanation! But it gets worse.

She can’t exactly blurt out that Saf is innocent because she was with him on the roof! She could have made up some story that he was with her on the palace grounds, but even this is apparently too much for her, so in panic, she calls on Po. He masterfully steps up to the plate, claiming that he was with Saf on the roof. This releases Saf from all charges despite the judge's bias against him.

Bitterblue invites Saf to her rooms to explain to him her masquerade as "anyone-but-the-queen" and to apologize for deceiving him, but Saf behaves like a five year old, which almost totally turned me off him. What did complete that migration away from him was that when he leaves the palace, he steals from her like the jerk that he is. I'm sorry, but Saf is now out of my regard altogether. His behavior is unforgivable. Bitterblue risked her reputation to save his life and instead of being grateful, he insults her and then steals from her, and he steals not something which is a mere trinket, but the actual royal crown! The petulant son of a bitch deserves to be hanged for treason!

Now Cashore has succeeded in making Saf abhorrent to me, when she really ought to have been trying to win me over, because I was hardly a fanboi of his in the first place. Bitterblue deserves better bootie. I much prefer Lord Giddon for her, but he's probably going to end up with someone like Fox - another of Bitterblue's graced entourage - who actually might be a better match for him anyway. Fox is a sort of palace handywoman who hangs around cleaning and doing odd jobs while training as a spy. I'm not sure I trust her, but I would love to read a story about her. She's the one who picks the locks so that Bitterblue and Helda can investigate Leck's private bedroom, which is hidden away downstairs in the midst of a maze and which also holds about forty bizarre sculptures.

All this to get you to the point where I can discuss Bitterblue's rank stupidity! So here it is: despite the fact that she knows that she's being targeted, and despite the fact that she's been viciously attacked on more than one occasion, and despite the fact that Saf & Co now know that she's the queen, she sneaks out alone yet again onto the streets to visit them and apologize yet again to this lowlife thief who has treasonously betrayed his queen. She takes no guards with her and so of course she's attacked and stabbed, and has her arm broken!

If I were not so invested in Cashore as such a noteworthy writer, I would probably have quit reading this novel at this point, because this portion of it is far too stupid to read; however, in view of how much good Cashore has done so far over three novels, I was willing to let her off with a caution for this questionable behavior, in the dearest hope that she isn't a repeat offender! She is so much better than this and I hate to see her work sagging so badly in the middle.

So now Bitterblue is in the position of having to beg an ingrate, a thief, and a traitor for the return of her crown. Saf doesn't even have it! He gave it to a "fence" to hold for him, and that fence passed it on to a relative, so now no one knows where the crown is, and Bitterblue has failed again to act because she wants to keep this crime a secret to protect a thief who does nothing but childishly taunt and insult her.

Meanwhile we have Po on more than one occasion flying paper airplanes, as though paper is the cheapest thing on the planet, which given their state of technological development, it most certainly is not, and we have Po encouraging Bitterblue to befriend Hava, the chameleon graced girl who was one of the team who was trying to kidnap her! Bitterblue meets her in the sculpture room of the palace and starts the two of them on the track to friendship. I had thought at this point that given what we'd learned of Fox and Hava, and Po's planes, we were going to see an interesting finale to this novel. That didn't happen!

I have to say in passing here that Bitterblue's comprehensive ignorance regarding palace geography and composition is an inexplicable mystery. Was she, as a child, completely and utterly incurious about her surroundings? What preteen child wouldn't run riot around such a place, exploring secret passages and out-of-the-way nooks and crannies? Bitterblue seems to have confined herself to such a limited area that it's really not credible.

My disgust with Bitterblue and Saf vis-à-vis their pathetic and abusive relationship continued to be exacerbated. Po hires Saf to "caulk the windows" - like anyone caulked anything other than boats in that era! Seriously? As soon as Bitterblue learns this she runs after him like a bitch in heat, first to espy where he is on the castle walls (caulking away with Fox on what amounts to a window washer's platform). Once she knows his location, she immediately races inside and up to that floor, where she opens the window and invites him in. She again apologizes profusely to this worthless piece of gutter effluent, so of course, he proceeds to treat her like trash! Again!

Later, Giddon catches Saf wandering around in the maze which surrounds Leck's bedroom, and when he's searched, he's found to be carrying Fox's lock-pick tools along with some keys, so this lowlife jerk-off is continuing with his thievery even though he has been hired to work at the castle. When he's brought into her presence and all of this reported, he trash-talks Bitterblue (and thankfully gets cuffed by Giddon for his mouth), and this STILL isn’t enough to get him into Bitterblue's bad graces. She even chides Giddon for hitting him!

Frankly, I was really, truly, and honestly having a bad time with this novel at that point. It had been really great up to where Le Stupide reared its ugly head, and for the most part it was pretty good even then (interspersed with the dumbassery as it was), but these behaviors really kicked my suspension of disbelief (SoD) in the grass.

There was a bright spark which kept me going, which was Katsa's return, but she really didn't have a lot to offer in this novel. She was investigating one of the mountain tunnels and discovered another tunnel which smelled interesting to her. When she investigated it, she discovered a monster rat (of the kind found in the companion novel Fire - that is not monster in size, but in traits and in pelt coloration). Katsa brings the pelt back, and Bitterblue immediately 'orders' her to return and follow the tunnel through, to see what's at the other end. Clearly, she realizes, while King Leck's reality was a horrible nightmare, his fantasies as exemplified in art and in the topiaries, was real!

Even though Bitterblue has no authority whatsoever over Katsa, the latter agrees to use up some of her valuable time to investigate this new world. Yeah, it’s incredible that neither person nor creature has ever been over the mountains in either direction, not even the vicious, ravenous raptors, but I am willing to let that slide for the sake of finding out what's going to happen with this unique culture clash. It turned out: not much.

Meanwhile all her distant friends who had come visiting are now dispersing: Katsa to the tunnel, Po and Raffin elsewhere, Madlen the healer (along with Saf the scum) to investigate all the bones which Giddon has discovered were in the river - perhaps the last remnants of Leck's insanity. Fox has owned up to finding, and then losing some keys, of which no one seems to know the origin or the purpose, but when Bitterblue wanders the castle again, she finds that the keys fit Leck's secret rooms, and within his secret rooms is a secret room containing his diaries - but they're written in "code". So despite some disappointment, there is enough to keep on going here - including more disappointment! Yes, it's the return of Le Stupide!

So it turns out that Fox is more foxy than we've hitherto been given to believe! I told you her story was worth telling, didn't I? She's the criminal who is holding the crown and a host of other royal loot. What does Bitterblue do when she learns of this? Does she send a host of her military in there to arrest and retrieve? Hell no! Why back a sure thing when you can screw up royally yet again? She lets Saf the Lowlife talk her into letting him go in alone; then he gets caught with the crown and attacked by ruffians, and ends up throwing the crown into the river!

It's hard to imagine anything worse than that, but it also turns out that all of Bitterblue's four advisers - the ones expertly chosen for her by King Ror - have betrayed her and have been covering up evidence of things they did under King Leck's influence, including killing people who got too near the truth. But Bitterblue is ready to forgive them no matter what! In the end, Thiel kills one of them and then himself, and another kills himself in prison, leaving only one of them, whom Bitterblue releases from prison and merely places him under house arrest! Seriously?

As far as the diaries go, it turns out that they were written in monster-speak, but don't worry, Thiel took care of burning most of them before he died. And then Lady Fire shows up accompanying Katsa back from the Dell-y. And from there the novel just fizzles with the usual muddy Cashore ending. But no, Bitterblue ends up neither with Saf nor Giddon, so no worries there.

Once again the ending was a bit sad - not within itself, but from my perspective of it not being as good as other parts of the novel. Kudos to Cashore for not feeling compelled to end her novels with "happily ever after", but that still doesn't mean they're satisfying: they're muddy and disappointingly dissipated. They don't feel like a climax. They feel like Cashore got bored with the writing, or got stuck for a good ending or something, and just let the threads of the story come loose in her hands. It didn't even feel like an ending and in some stories, that's a good thing, but not in this trilogy. This novel had lost too many things for me before it ended, though.

Of the trilogy, Graceling is by far the best - several levels above the other two. After that I'd place Bitterblue, despite having a few too many issues with it. I'd put Fire last, but that doesn't mean it's not a worthy read. Overall I'm disappointed in this trilogy, but I love so much of Cashore's writing in it that I'm willing to let the disappointment slide in favor of recommending all three.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Fire by Kristin Cashore






Title: Fire
Author: Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Dial
Rating: WORTHY!

I didn't become as hopelessly lost in this as I did in Graceling, but it's keeping my interest so far. Fire is set in the same world as Graceling, but in a different country and features different actors. It also takes place some 30 or 40 years before the events of Graceling. You'd think with a title like that, it would be a prequel to Ash lol! The female protagonist is Fire, a "monster" indeed, the last monster who appears in human form. Apparently these monsters are truly monsters, and while they look rather like creatures with which you may be familiar - wolves, birds - they're colored in amazing hues and they are extremely aggressive. I keep picturing those "wolves" in the Crematoria prison featured in the Chronicles of Riddick movie.

Fire isn't like those monsters, and she begins in this story by getting shot through the arm with an arrow. Fortunately, the hunter did not intend to hit her (she was wearing a deerskin after all!), and she is able to control his mind sufficiently to 'persuade' him to escort her back to her friend Archer, a fellow monster, who imprisons the hunter and takes care of her. Later, the hunter is killed by a skilled archer.

Fire takes a trip to visit a close friend Roen, who inhabits a castle out in the badlands where monster raptors are circling overhead and numbering in the two hundreds. At the castle they meet up with the King's army, commanded by the king's brother who detests Fire because she;s the daughter of Cansrel, who along with the previous king, ran The dells into the ground.

The army takes off on a mission. Once they reach the Mouton tunnel, they will be safe from the raptors, but as Fire sees them heading towards the tunnel, she also sees the raptors start taking an interest and she knows they will never make it there without losing some of the rearguard. At the last minute, she mounts her horse - called 'Small' because he's supposedly small-minded - and charges out of the castle gate before it can close. She heads off away from the army, and when she's in position, she takes off her headscarf, revealing her magnificent mane of monster hair, which is guaranteed to attract raptors. And they come in a swarm. Fire charges back to the castle as fast as poor Small can carry her, and they're both seriously mauled before they can get safely inside the gate, but the entire army is able to make it safely into the tunnels. Archer is pissed but they ride it out.

When the King's brother returns, he requests that Fire accompany him to the capital city where they have captured a man who was discovered spying in the King's rooms. They want Fire to use her mind-reading powers on him. She travels with the army, but is assigned her own personal guard to safeguard her against the resentment some of the army feels towards monsters, and towards her in particular, being the daughter of the man who tried to assassinate their beloved leader.

On the trip, Fire's beautiful "fiddle" is purposefully destroyed by an enraged soldier. Why Cashore terms it thus (fiddle) and then describes the beautiful music Fire plays with it is a mystery to me. If the music is so heart-rendingly wonderful, then it's a violin! If she's stirring up a hoe-down, then it's a fiddle! That just annoyed me. But when they arrive at the King's city, the king himself can't resist Fire, and attacks her. When she refuses him, he hits her. It seems that men must react either in adoration or in hatred of the monster girl. The King's brother is furious. Later, he has four violins delivered to Fire and requests that she choose one to replace what was damaged. She picks one even though she claims it's too good for her meager musical skills.

This story proved itself a lot harder to get lost in than was Graceling. I fell in love with that almost immediately, but as I've pressed on with this one, it has become more engrossing. Fire spends some considerable time at the palace and starts forming a relationship not only with the King, Nash, who is nothing but a nuisance at first, but who goes out of his way to try and block off his mind from Fire so that he does not lose control to her charms.

She slowly builds a relationship with King Nash's other brother, Garrod, who makes it explicitly clear that he does not trust Fire. Here relationship with Brigan, the commander of the army continues to soften and build, and she also becomes friends with the King's sister, Clara. She discovers that Brigan has a daughter, Hanna, with whom she becomes friends. And eventually, she agrees to do what she originally was brought to the palace to accomplish, but against which she has strenuously fought: she agrees to "interrogate" the prisoners, which is a swamp of potential missteps.

One of these interrogations indirectly reveals a traitor in their midst - a trusted captain who is evidently working for Mydogg. In a raid worthy of something the CIA might pull, this rendition is done in a way which makes it look like he was killed by bandits. His information reveals that there's a pincer-movement being planned by Mydogg and Gentian. Gentian's army is supposedly hiding in tunnels south of the royal city, whereas Mydogg's vast army is hiding to the north, but while they have a good idea of where Gentian's forces are, no one can find Mydogg's. The decision is taken to kill three key people at the upcoming royal gala: Gentian, his son Gunner, and Murgda, sister to Mydogg. The only one who can perform these assassinations is Fire, but the royal family doesn't know if it can trust her to carry it through. She could also end up being killed herself if any of the three is resistant to her mind-control and can wield a sword.

There's a really weird sentence on page 298 in the hardback edition, at the beginning of Chapter 22, fourth paragraph in, which starts: "Fire knew herself to be more experienced than anyone in this room save Archer realized." I think that 'realized' shouldn't be there. But I'm frankly a bit more intrigued with Gentian's son's name. Gunner? I wonder if Cashore intended it to be spelled thus, or if she simply doesn't know that it's actually Gunnar?

I know the trope is to 'write what you know' but if we all confined ourselves to that, then there'd be a dearth of interesting stories to be had. Most writers don't write what they know, they write what they imagine, perhaps supported or rooted in what they know. Some people way-overdo writing what they know and end up putting endless boring details into their stories for no other purpose than to show that they know what they're writing about inside out! Cashore sure doesn't know about The Dells or the seven kingdoms: not in the sense of having visited them (except in her imagination, of course), she's never encountered these monsters, yet she writes a great novel about them in this world. Suppose you dream of being a writer but you're a garbage collector or a house painter? Yeah, it's possible to create a story or two around that, but eventually you're going to run out. So what then? Give up your dream because you don't know any more?

This is why I don't subscribe to 'write what you know'; instead I subscribe to write what you love, what you care about, what you're interested in, but with the caveat that if you're going to write outside your immediate sure knowledge, at least do some looking up, or research, depending on how far out of your depth you're swimming. I don't think readers care if you're not writing what you know. They do care if you're writing something which is boring or worse, stupid!

All this really doesn't have a whole heck of a lot to do with 'Gunner' but it does highlight how a question can be raised in the mind of a reader by something which seems out of place, as that name did to me. It also highlights that travel certainly is a good experience to have under your belt as a writer, and knowledge of other cultures will probably kindle some stories which otherwise would have never set alight, and at the same time, give a flavor of authenticity to what you write. All this to say I am quite willing to let Cashore have her way with me literally with an out of place 'realize' and with apparently not knowing or not caring about the difference between Gunner and Gunnar, because even though she isn't honestly writing what she knows, she sure fakes it really well! With regard to authors in general, I have far more respect for someone who tries and fails, than I ever will for someone who doesn't even pretend to try or to care.

Fire's plan to isolate Gentian and Gunner in a room where they can be interrogated and then killed works a treat, but Fire makes a mistake. They end up in a room which is occupied (though not at that moment) by one of their own allies, and Fire is so worn out from directing these people and calming them, and communicating with those who are helping her, and misdirecting others that Brigan has to shore her up with warm feelings from himself. It gets worse as the assassination goes down, with Brigan killing both Gentian and Gunner, who has broken Fire's nose in the fracas.

But the details of the planned attack by Mydogg are out. King Nash and his family know everything, and Brigan rides headlong to join his forces at Fort Flood to taken down Gentian's men. As Fire returns to her room, she senses something very out of place. Hanna is being hurt, no doubt to lure Fire there, and she gullibly falls right in with this plan. She's evidently hit by an arrow tipped with a sleeping potion, and she loses consciousness. Thus endeth Part the Second.

I have to say I was rather disappointed in Cashore here. She's playing these two characters, Gentian and Gunner, enemies of King Nash, as being complete morons who simply blab all of their plans to Fire without any hesitation and without holding back a single thing, when not a one of the lesser players who has been interrogated would tell them anything. I can't buy that. Nor can I buy that she can only get a vague idea of something wrong when what is actually wrong is that Hanna being taken and hurt. This is bullshit which betrays everything we have learned about Fire and her feelings for Hanna. If she can keep track of scores of people who detest her, then she ought to be tightly tuned in to those whom she loves, so I think Cashore failed badly here at the end of part two.

Here's another odd sentence: "...tears seeped down Fire's face from the effort of detracting the attention..." I think Cashore means distracting! The way it's written makes no sense at all. But moving right along - I find it equally as heartening as it is disheartening that Cashore seems as unable to finish a novel as I am! I loved Graceling, but the ending seemed a bit flat. I was less thrilled with Fire, which started out really good but got rather lost in the middle and then came back strong, slipped a little, and finally simply disintegrated at the end. However, it was a decent read overall, and Cashore has enough credit with me after her debut for me to forgive quite a bit!

I had some issues with Fire's behavior and character. She's a significantly less-than-stellar hero for a novel, especially a cashore novel and especially right after Graceling. She is portrayed as stronger in the beginning than she appears to become towards the end when we find her turning into a whimpering mess of Jello, so there's no character growth there. However, overall, she is enough to maintain interest and there are some really strong parts, particularly where Fire ends up being abducted by and then escaping Leck - the guy who causes so much trouble in Graceling. So on balance I do recommend this one, but I was glad to be done with it and moving on to Bitterblue


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Graceling by Kristin Cashore






Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Publisher: Harcourt
Rating: WORTHY!

Let this be a lesson to authors in choosing the best title for their novel! And let this be a lesson to potential readers not to judge a book by its title! When I first saw the title Graceling I was convinced that it was quite literally a fairy story; that is, a story about fairies, and I had no interest in it at all. That's not to stake a claim that I would never read a fairy story, but I've never yet been moved in that direction by any such novel of which I've become aware.

Even when I learned that the female protagonist in this novel was an assassin, it didn't fire up any deeper interest in the novel within me because I still thought it was about fairies! It was the 'grace' combined with the 'ling' which did it, I think; it was too much of a airy-fairy title! Then I happened to be looking along the library shelves and saw Fire. I picked it up not realizing that it was in the same world as Graceling and I was intrigued by the blurb. Graceling just happened to be sitting right next to it. Thinking they were sequential I picked that one up as well. I discovered that they're not a sequential pair, but they do share the same world, so I decided that if I'm going to read Fire, I ought to read Graceling first, just in case. In for a pennyweight, in for a pounding. So here I am, a hundred and 30-some pages into this 470-some page story and I have to confess that I'm not disappointed so far.

The female protagonist is Katsa, the male protagonist probably Prince Po. Yeah, about those names! I actually love 'Katsa', but Po? No! What is it which makes cat-like names so cool for female protagonists? Kat, Kitai, Katsa? Anyway, we start with her helping to bust out a Lienid prince (with the bizarre name of Tealiff) from prison. Katsa harms no one, she merely knocks the guards out and pops a sleeping pill in their mouth to keep them out long enough for her team to get away with their prisoner.

Though Katsa is supposed to be King Randa's enforcer, she's working as an independent on this job. She's supposed to be traveling to a neighboring kingdom to beat up on a guy who took more forest acreage than he had contracted for, but before she makes that trip, she side-tracks to spring this aging foreign prince, and returns him to Randa City, her own capital, where they keep him hidden so no one will know that Middluns (Katsa's home nation) will know they had anything to do with it.

The only unexpected thing on this entire adventure was her encounter with another of her kind, whom she knocks out, but doesn't kill. It's just as well, because he later shows up at the palace where she resides, and it turns out he's another prince of Lienid. Lienid has seven princes, and the world in which these people all reside has seven kingdoms: Nander, Sunder, Estill, Wester, Middluns, Monsea, and Lienid. The first four nations in that list tend to be at war with one another for one reason or another, the latter three, not so much.

In these nations there is, on occasion, a child is born who has a 'grace' - that is a special talent at something or other. These graces can be for anything from cooking, to taking care of horses, to swimming, to being an expert at fighting and killing, and even mind reading. Katsa discovered her talent when she accidentally killed a much older cousin who was touching her way too familiarly. Those who have graces are readily recognizable by having eyes of two different colors. Katsa's are blue and green, Prince Po's are silver and gold. Such people are shunned as a general rule, but if they have a great talent for something their king deems useful, then the king can order that the bearer of the grace be brought into his service; hence Katsa's permanent presence at the palace. The King is also her uncle.

Katsa isn't happy being an enforcer. She dislikes hurting people and becomes very angry when her king demands her services, but she is the best there is, better even than Prince Po, though he is older and stronger. The two of them begin to bond over their shared grace, and fight with each other each day just for the pleasure of being able to combat someone who is actually a challenge to them. But Katsa is really painfully slow to realize that Po is not only graced as a fighter, he's also graced as a mind reader - as long as your mind is focused on him. This ability to read her intentions towards him is how he manages to stay in a fight with her, but of course it makes it rather questionable as to how Katsa was able to knock him out when she encountered him at the start of this novel!

Katsa is also friends with Randa's own son, Prince Raffin, who hangs out with a very close male friend called Bann, pursuing intellectual interests, particularly medicine. In one experiment, he ended up with his hair dyed blue, and so currently isn't in his father's best graces. He and Katsa, together with spy chief Oll and Lord Giddon, who is in love with Katsa, along with a web of people across the seven nations, are part of The Council. It was on Council business that Katsa rescued Prince Tealiff.

The apparently budding romance between Po and Katsa is being handled rather nicely, so I don't even get to complain about that(!), and there appears to be no love triangle here, but there comes a threat to the smooth unfolding of that love when Katsa is dispatched by Randa on another bullying mission. She's supposed to bully Lord Ellis into giving up one of his daughters in marriage to another lord who lives in such a besieged locale that he's having a hard time finding a wife. Randa volunteers one of Elli's daughters, but Ellis refuses. Katsa refused to beat up on him for that. Instead she gives both Giddon and Oll slight injuries and orders them to tell Randa that she refused and they were injured in foolishly trying to coerce her. In that way, she takes sole blame for her action - or lack of it.

Giddon, trying to help her out of her dilemma, proposes to her, somehow thinking that a marriage to him will reduce or deflect the King's opportunities for punishment. Katsa refuses him, but during their discussion, she is finally clued in to Po's talent, and she confronts Po angrily, calling him a traitor before storming back to her room where her maid, Helda, tries to comfort her. Then comes a hilarious sentence:

Later, when Katsa was dressed and Helda grappled with her wet hair before the fire, there was a knock on her entrance.

Po tries to apologize to her, but she's very angry. Without having resolved her relationship with him, she's summoned to the King's presence to answer for her refusal to obey him in the Lord Ellis affair. She takes charge of her own life from this point onwards. Rather than being cowed by the King, she refuses to work for him any more and in the morning (why the delay?!) she leaves the castle with Po, and they head towards Monsea to investigate further the kidnapping of Prince Tealiff.

The Journey is long and they use it to pursue their differences, resolve their issues, and plan ahead for what they might encounter in Monsea. Katsa also grows to know herself better - and realizes that her grace is not murdering, but surviving. Her fighting skills are only a small part of this. For her own peace of mind, Katsa practices both conveying messages to Po just by thinking, and on also blocking him out of her mind. As they meander through the forest and scale the mountains into Monsea, they discuss the king. He came to power oddly. He was not of the royal blood, but showed up as an orphan and vagabond. He had only one eye and people took to him readily. Eventually the king adopted him and named his as heir to the throne, whereupon the king and queen and his top advisers all mysteriously died, leaving the one-eyed vagabond to rule.

It's Po's and Katsa's considered opinion that the reason the vagabond king is one-eyed is that he deliberately cut out the other eye to hide the fact that he has a grace: a grace which enables him to control the minds of others, which is how he got away with all that he did. I think we're about to learn a bit more of his history in a prequel called Fire, which I'll be reviewing next.

Unfortunately for Katsa and Po, all their plans come to naught because the first person they encounter upon entering the kingdom is the king himself, chasing his escaping wife Ashen (a kinswoman of Po's) and slaughtering her. Her dying thought is to Po, to find her daughter who is now alone in the forest.

For the first time in her life, Katsa realizes that there is something which she can neither fight nor defend against: the king's mind control. They run and hide in the forest, eventually finding the young princess. Po is protected against the King's power because he can sense the King's thoughts and repel them, but Katsa cannot. She has turned her weapons over to Po and vowed to do everything he asks without question as a protection against being mind-controlled, but she couldn't obey Po's order to strike the King down because the King had already overpowered her mind. Now the two of them have no plan and must urgently decide what to do next.

I love this story so much that I'm going to award it a 'worthy' even though I haven't finished it yet. I don't even care if the ending sucks! This novel is so good that it's worth reading even if the ending is awful!

Well the ending wasn't awful, it was awesome (and no, I'm not going to tell you what happens! I wouldn't dream of robbing you of that joy.) This is a really amazing novel, with great characters, very well-written, a superbly well-done YA "romance" which ought to make other YA romance writers pay attention if they know what's good for them, and learn something about how intelligent, self-respecting people really behave in relationships. And no, I'm not talking about the fighting! Go read it: grace yourself!

Graceling is followed sequentially by Bitterblue and preceded by Fire, although I understand that Cashore recommends that they be read in the order they were published, which is how I've been reading them.