Friday, December 5, 2008

Entering with Grace

I like the idea of grace, that some people carry themselves with elegance and a fine sense of balance, that there's a God who will give you a "get out of hell free" card if you try to do better, that there was once a movie star and, later, a princess who grew into the name Grace. And I like the image of grace, which I'm capable of pulling off as long as I stand still (once I played an aging dancer on stage, in a production of Arthur Miller's After the Fall), but which is dispelled as soon as I begin to move, much like Jamie Lee Curtis's character when she tries to do a pole dance holding on to a bedpost in True Lies. And I like the book Graceling, published in October and which I've been waiting to read ever since I read this enthusiastic review. It's the first book by Kristin Cashore, and the first of a trilogy, although its plot stands well enough on its own.

People living in and even visiting my house were skeptical, seeing this book lying around with an old-fashioned looking broadsword on the cover. My daughter picked it up and said, "oh great, another book with seven kingdoms that you have to keep straight." So my expectations were not too high; I feared, in fact, that it would be just another fantasy book in which it's difficult to keep straight the seven kingdoms with their various national weapons and sixty-three characters with odd names. You know, the kind of book made fun of in the xkcd comic fiction rule of thumb. I think it's easier to enjoy that kind of book if you haven't yet read a lot of fantasy, but if you're like me and have been reading fantasy since discovering Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings at the age of 11 and Zalazny's Nine Princes in Amber at the age of 18, even dipping into what I think of as derivative fantasy like The Sword of Shannara and Eragon, then you're a lot harder to please.

But, as I've already said, I like Graceling. In fact, I like it a lot. So how is it different from all of those other fantasy novels that make my family and friends squint at a book with a broadsword on the cover and then look at me in disbelief? Well, for one thing, the idea of being graced with a talent is not a static idea, in the book. It's not like receiving a broadsword at the age of 13 and going out to slay whatever unfortunate creature has been designated to you as the natural receptor of that particular weapon. It's more like learning how to use an enhanced sense, such as good sight or fast reflexes, or even powerful charisma. The two main characters, called Gracelings because their different-colored eyes identify them as people who have a special grace, think they know what their grace is at the beginning of the book. But by the end, they are still discovering how to use their graces, and aiming for a higher purpose for their use.

There is subtlety in the way they are described as coming to understand each others' talents. The character called Po grows up believing that his grace is that he can read minds when someone else is thinking about him. He hides this grace, presenting it to others as a fighting grace, because knowing what his opponent is about to do makes him a formidable fighter. When his friend and sparring partner, the protagonist, Katsa, realizes that he can read her mind, she accuses him of lying to her, and he says:
"'You would have me friendless, Katsa," he finished quietly. 'You would have my Grace control every aspect of my life and shut me off from every happiness.'
She didn't want to hear these words, words that called to her sympathy, to her understanding. She who had hurt so many with her own Grace, and been reviled because of it. She who still struggled to keep her Grace from mastering her, and who, like him, had never asked for the power it gave her.
'Yes,' he said. 'I didn't ask for this. I would turn it off for you, if I could.'
Rage then, rage again, because she couldn't even feel sympathy without him knowing it."
And later, Katsa understands even more about Po's grace when he admits that she's better at hunting and fighting than he is:
"'But you're better than I am, Katsa. And it doesn't humiliate me.' He fed a branch to the fire. 'It humbles me. But it doesn't humiliate me.'
She sat quietly as night closed in and watched the blood drip from the hunk of meat she held on a stick over the fire. She listened to it sizzle as it hit the flames. She tried to separate in her mind the idea of being humbled from the idea of being humiliated and she understood what Po meant. She wouldn't have thought to make the distinction. He was so clear with his thoughts, while hers were a constant storm that she could never make sense of and never control. She felt suddenly and sharply that Po was smarter than she, worlds smarter, and that she was a brute in comparison. An unthinking and unfeeling brute.
'Katsa....I don't see how you can compare us,' he said, 'and find yourself lacking in intelligence, or unthinking or unfeeling. I've had to spend my entire life hammering out the emotions of others, and myself, in my mind. If my mind is clearer, sometimes, than yours, it's because I've had more practice.'"
It's a nice change, in a fantasy, to see that a character has to continually work at using one of his natural gifts, not just like it's usually seen in a movie, as a brief montage with energetic music, but during most of the minutes in every one of his days.

Katsa is a woman of action, which is certainly a nice change in fantasy (remember how Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens eventually pulled back from their initial superimposition of Arwen's character on Glorfindel's?). Katsa refuses to marry the hero, declares that she will never have children, and despite the fact that she rescues a little girl, doesn't try to adopt her and doesn't change her mind about having children when the rescue is succesful. She learns to control her grace so that others can't use it to control her.

Katsa is a heroine who keeps learning to be more balanced and graceful, and Cashore is a writer who is entering the literary world with a grace all her own.

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