Kristin Cashore, I love you, will you marry me?

by Wardog

Wardog apparently rather enjoyed Graceling.
~
There's a bit in The History Boys where Hector is discussing Hardy's 'Drummer Hodge' with Posner and he says something like (I can't be arsed to dig out the correct quote) one of the wonderful things about reading is that sometimes it feels as though an author has reached out to you and taken your hand. I know he was talking about High Art yadda yadda but, screw that. For me the experience of reading Graceling felt rather as though Kristin Cashore had reached out to me and into my head and pulled out of it something I didn't even know I needed to read. It wasn’t until I read Graceling that I realised how profoundly tired I am of fantasy. I am sick to the back teeth of making excuses for pisspoor female characters or trying to dismiss the effect of constant, background sexism. It’s been a long time since I read a book and felt safe to relax and enjoy it, without going in constant fear of the author dropping a gender clanger on my head.

In case I'm not making it clear enough: Graceling is simply fantastic. I urge you to go out, buy it, read it, love it, and then get really really angry at the rest of the fantasy genre. I know I am. I don't think I want to read a book that isn't written by Kristin Cashore ever again.

In our fantasy kingdom de jour, the Seven Kingdoms, a select few are “graced” with super-human talents, and identified by their mis-matched eyes. These talents can be for anything from the mundane to the outlandish – from being able to swim really well, predict the weather or even read minds. Our heroine, Katsa, has a grace for killing. As the niece of King Randa, she has been trained since the age of eight to be his weapon and his tool. But Katsa also organises, and works for, the Shadow Council – a resistance network, aimed at righting some of Randa’s injustices. While on a rescue mission for the Shadow Council, Katsa encounters another Graceling who intrigues her and, needless to say, the mission at hand turns out to be connected to much larger, much more dangerous events. The plot, which naturally involves travel! politics! and all the usual things, kicks off from here.

To be honest, it’s basic fantasy fare but Cashore handles it extremely well. The pages keep turning, there is action, adventure, tension, drama and danger, and all this in a delicious 300 pages. The world-building is deft and even the concept of the Graced, which struck me initially as being rather dubious, comes across plausibly. Basically Graceling is competent across the board: excellent writing, snappy dialogue, fantastic characters, I couldn’t ask for more. It is a little bit rough around the edges, as one might expect of a first novel – the pace falters occasionally, some sections seem a little hurried compared to others, and there are a couple of things that don’t entirely come off. For example, I wasn’t especially convinced that a girl of Katsa’s age and temperament would have managed to administrate something like the Shadow Council. And I was also slightly irritated by one of the squabbling Seven Kingdoms so blatantly being designated The Good Kingdom Where The Nice Relatively Non Judgemental People Come From, but, truthfully, it was also kind of a relief.

And, equally, although the villain is genuinely terrifying in concept, his presence is a muted one for most the book, until the very end whereupon he is dealt with rather abruptly. The villain in question is altogether a little bit difficult actually. It’s refreshing that the characters recognise him as the villain at about the same time the reader does and I don’t even mind the fact we’re distanced from him, since this is Katsa’s book, not his. But he’s pretty much invincible until the point at which he’s destroyed, which leads to a rather hollow feeling at the moment of victory. And his ill-deeds over the course of the book stack up to the point that it seems as though he’s just evil for the sake of being evil. It’s not that I demand moral ambiguity from villains but when they’re cutting up kittens for shits and giggles they’ve crossed the line into cartoonish. The truly bewildering thing about it is that as soon as I finished Graceling, I started on Cashore’s next book, Fire, and the prologue offers us just enough information about him to turn him back to terrifying. I have no idea why this isn’t in Graceling. It even makes the kitten killing make sense.

In general, therefore: extremely competent, slightly generic fantasy, in need of a little polish here and there. But the thing about Graceling that is truly astonishingly amazingly fantastic is its approach to female characters, and the solid gold gender-issues awareness that saturates the entire book. It’s simply wonderful to read a book so sensible and sorted and safe. Take the little things. During her travels, Katsa tries to book passage on a ship to take her out of danger. She runs in trouble with the crew for untrustworthy appearance and the fact she is so obviously in flight from something, so they take her to meet the Captain, about whom they all speak with affection and a great deal of respect. This is the Captain:
She was a woman past childbearing years, her hair steel grey and pulled tightly into a knot at the nape of her neck. Her clothing like that of the sailors: brown trousers, brown coat, heavy boots, and a knife at her belt. Her left eye pale grey, her right a blue as brilliant as Katsa’s blue eye. Her face stern, and her gaze, as she turned to the two strangers, quick and piercing.

Kristin Cashore, I love you, will you marry me. Thank you for the attractive, competent mature female sea Captain, thank you, thank you, thank you. The worst of it was, until the moment they met her, it hadn’t crossed my mind that the character would – and could – be a woman. Graceling is peopled with, err, people. Man persons and woman persons, all of them realised, rounded, fleshed out, admirable and not so admirable. It’s the first time in a very long time that I had a sense of a world in which any character in it was as likely to be a woman as be a man. That’s so damnably important, I can’t believe I’d ever forgotten it.

As for Katsa herself, I just adored her, adored her and wanted to be her, which, again, is the sign of an excellent female character if you ask me. Given her Grace, she is exceptionally kick-ass, but she possesses enough flaws to be human. It was hugely pleasurable to revel in her strength and her courage, and relax into a book where the heroine can take care of herself and isn’t going to be fondled by rough barbarian hands any time soon. The hero, Prince ‘Po’ Greenleaf, the Graceling Katsa meets on her rescue mission, is an equally successful character, and a perfect match for Katsa. I don’t say this lightly but by about halfway through I was head over heels in love with him myself.

I’ve read a few reviews which found the relationship between Katsa and Po unsatisfying, claiming that Katsa has to be “emotionally rescued” by a man. I didn’t see this at all. It’s true that Katsa is strong, surly and not very good with her emotions, and Po is a much lighter, much more emotionally intelligent character, but I never got a sense of their relationship being any other than based on mutuality. And personally I appreciated the gender-role reversal – the alpha heroine and the man who isn’t afraid of her.
He laughed “You may hunt for my food and protect me when we’re attacked, if you like. I’ll thank you for it.”

“But I’d never need to protect you, if we were attacked. And I doubt you need me to do your hunting, either.”

“True. 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.”

You know, I think that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever read.

Okay, I’m giving up now. This is a terrible excuse for a review. But, in my defence, positive reviews are harder to write than negative ones, and I genuinely don’t want to spoil Graceling for anyone. I do, however, think you should read it and I hope at the very least I’ve convinced you of that. Fantasy needs more of this!
~

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

~
Comments (go to latest)
C J Morgan at 18:26 on 2009-10-29
Man, you Brits get the best book covers. I went to buy this book, and I never would have looked twice at it, if I had seen the American cover:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0547258305/ref=s9_simz_gw_s0_p14_i2?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-2&pf_rd_r=04DJ2FA20F5JCARHVJ9T&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470938631&pf_rd_i=507846

I mean, seriously now...
http://ptolemaeus.livejournal.com/ at 02:07 on 2009-10-30
This is a terrible excuse for a review.


If you say so; you sold me on the book, one way or the other! Oh, how I love a good feminist-friendly fantasy...
Bryn at 02:17 on 2009-10-30
What Ptolemaeus said. Kyra, you've sold another book! :)
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 06:45 on 2009-10-30
I enjoyed Graceling a lot. I think my favorite scene in any of the books I've read in recent years is Katsa and Bitterblue trekking through the snow and surviving. I had shivers up and down my spine as I read that bit. A lot of reviews thought it was boring but I thought it was one of most powerful and vivid bits of writing I've ever seen. I really loved the relationship between these two young women.

Katsa's Grace is not the Grace to kill but the Grace to survive.

The villian, unfortunately, was the weakest aspect of the book and the weakest aspect of any book I've read in recent years. I did like the ignominious way he died and the way he was so villainous. But the cutting kittens and little girls was, as you said, just plain cartoonish. And I read Fire hoping to find out a little bit of why he was bent but all Cashore seemed to say was that some people are born eveeel. Which isn't very profound or original.
Wardog at 12:13 on 2009-10-30
@CJ

God, that is a horribly generic cover - doesn't do the book any sort of justice. I really like the English covers for both Graceling and Fire, I think they're beautiful. Fire is a little bit silly - why is she wearing that ballgown and trying to shoot an arrow - but Graceling is awesome. It's attractive and communicates "kick ass woman" without being hideously in your face about it. And look at her there, wearing clothing appropriate to kicking ass. No bare legs and pointless cleavage.

@Ptolemaeus and Bryn - well I tend to prefer reviews to be a bit more analytical but I didn't want to analyse Graceling and spoil the pleasure for others. And all I really wanted to say was "ohmygodthisisawesome*. But, yes, do read it, it's thoroughly excellent feminist fantasy. MOAR! I want MOAR of this!




Wardog at 12:21 on 2009-10-30
Kat, that's one of my favourite scenes as well. I actually cried. I don't know why because I knew the narrative demanded they survive but they were both being so *brave* and I loved them both so much... *embarrassed* Also I adored Bitterblue. So rare to find a child I can stand in fiction and there she was.

Also, I know Katsa's grace is survival not killing but the moment you find that out is quite important for both Katsa and the reader - basically I thought it constituted a spoiler so I obfuscated it.

Leck is certainly the weakest aspect of the book, I agree, but I thought Fire made more sense of him. I've only read half of Fire so maybe there's more to come but I thought Cashore was going for A Clockwork Orange vibe rather than a "some people are born evil" message. The point is, I think, that you can argue that people are born literally amoral. And the thing is, Leck is born with incredible power over human beings, without any social or moral structures around him. You *would* in fact turn into a complete sociopath under those conditions. In fact, why *wouldn't* you? I think you can probably see a similar thing in Cansel?

It also really helped illuminate the rather hostile attitude to the Graced - I mean, yes, you would hate and fear these people if just one of them could bend the world to his will with a word.

*shudder*
Arthur B at 13:56 on 2009-10-30
An interesting travel sequence in a fantasy novel? That's even rarer than decent treatment of women.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 14:58 on 2009-10-31
My sister has also raved about both these books, and I'm certainly going to read them, but have been putting it off lest it queer my pitch. But what you have said about the travel sequence reminds me:

I simply love both Sam and Frodo's trek through Mordor and Genly Ai and Harth rem ir Estraven's trek over the ice. (that last in Le Guin's "Left Hand of Darkness") I am half wondering if Cashore could have been influenced by Le Guin?
Long-ish time lurker, first-time commenter.

I have to say, Ferretbrain has been an excellent source of book recommendations (Finnikin of the Rock, On the Jellicoe Road, Feeling Sorry for Celia - couldn't find The Year of Secret Assignments in my library, but borrowed FSrC, which is by the same author, instead), and I am massively! overexcited! about tracking down Graceling as well. Feminist fantasy?! Hurrah!
Dan H at 10:58 on 2009-11-02
Just FYI, in some countries "The Year of Secret Assignments" was called something like "Finding Cassie Crazy". They changed the name for the UK market.

Welcome to FB
Dan H at 11:07 on 2009-11-02
Also, I know Katsa's grace is survival not killing but the moment you find that out is quite important for both Katsa and the reader - basically I thought it constituted a spoiler so I obfuscated it.


I'm about halfway through Graceling and one of the things I've found interesting is the fact that while people *outside* the text talk about Graces in quite simplistic terms (her Grace is killing, her Grace is surviving) the way they actually work *within* the text is actually rather more complex. Po's grace, for example, demonstrably *does* make him a better fighter, even though it isn't specifically "fighting".

One rather wonders if Cashore isn't making a specific point about labels...
Wardog at 14:29 on 2009-11-02
An interesting travel sequence in a fantasy novel


Well, there's more character than geography which I think is what makes the difference ;)

@Mary.J
I wouldn't like to guess at Cashore's influences but I really enjoyed Left Hand of Darkness as well. I'm generally not big fan of the travel narrative but watching two people develop their relationship while throw upon each for survival is really satisfying. I'll just add my voice to your sister's - you should really read Graceling. From the little I know of your tastes from your comments, I suspect you'll really love it - at least, I hope you will :)

@Barefoottomboy
I shall just echo Dan's welcome - and I hope you enjoy Graceling. I'm feeling kind of anxious now since I've made such a big deal of recommending this book to all and sundry in case somebody hates it. But, hell, Dan is reading it right now and he likes it and Dan doesn't like anything ;)
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2009-11-02
Kyra: This is a terrible excuse for a review.

Ptolemaeus: If you say so; you sold me on the book, one way or the other! Oh, how I love a good feminist-friendly fantasy...

I'd offer to race you to finishing it, but I just discovered the library out here has it on playaway, so that wouldn't really be sporting. (Three copies, too, it must've made quite a splash with someone.)

Thirded on the review. Personally, I was just about sold on the title. If Kyra Smith is that enthusiastic over a book, 9 of 10 says that book is awesome.

As for the UK covers, for both Graceling and Fire I find they look gorgeous until I take a good close-up look at the faces, at which point I feel like I've suddenly stumbled into the Uncanny Valley.
Arthur B at 15:05 on 2009-11-02
I am not 100% sold on the UK cover. Bare arms out on the tundra? Really? Her Grace might be for survival but there is such a thing as tempting fate.

That said, I am a sucker for narratives about people freezing to death so I will pick it up anyway. The Left Hand of Darkness, the ending of Frankenstein, The South Side of the Sky by Yes...
Niall at 17:15 on 2009-11-02
Opinions do vary on the UK cover. Since having it pointed out to me that the sword wouldn't fit into the sheath, it's all I can see. (Well, that and the similarity to Justina Robson's Quantum Gravity covers.)
Rami at 19:29 on 2009-11-02
(Well, that and the similarity to Justina Robson's Quantum Gravity covers.)

Ah, but the Quantum Gravity covers are consistent on both sides of the pond...
@Dan and Kyra: thanks for the welcome!

@Dan: yup, it's called Finding Cassie Crazy in Australia, it was just that someone had borrowed it last time I checked the library.

@Kyra: Well, I read Jellicoe Road on your strong recommendation and absolutely loved it, so I wouldn't worry. :-)
Wardog at 10:31 on 2009-11-04
"That is a mighty big sword you have there, little lady.."

Sigh. Now I'm obsessing about it too, damn you Niall. But at least the UK cover says something - even if what it says is "impractical kick-ass chick", whereas the US cover says "blah."

To be fair, I quite like the Quantum Gravity covers as well...I guess I'm a little bit primitive in my tastes.
Niall at 12:15 on 2009-11-04
consistent on both sides of the pond.


Not completely: in the US, the first book comes with extra man. (Er, apologies for wandering completely off-topic.)
Wardog at 12:43 on 2009-11-04
No worries - but that's actually kind of weird. Did they think the US wouldn't be into a book that didn't have sufficient man in it? Is that supposed to be Zal do you think?
Arthur B at 12:50 on 2009-11-04
For me it's not the size of the sword which is distracting - I could write that off as dodgy perspective.

It's the fact that she's got a straight sword but her scabbard is clearly curved which, to me, is definitive proof that the artist just wasn't thinking things through.
Guy at 15:13 on 2009-11-04
Just playing devil's advocate here, but, could the curve of the scabbard be explained by it being made of leather and hence, liable to bend in the middle when it doesn't have a sword in it? Actually, I can't convince myself that that's what it is. The base of the blade appears to be twice the width of the scabbard. Actually, maybe it's better not to focus too much on the details - as an overall composition, the picture works for me.
Robinson L at 22:36 on 2009-11-16
It didn't strike me as generic, exactly. There's a weird fantasy category in my head that seems to be neither stereotypical nor particularly imaginative - it's sort of a fantasy neutral to my way of thinking. Graceling fits in that category. (Similarly, the story itself struck me as okay-edging-to-really-good-at-times.)

This is the Captain
And she is indeed quite badass, considering what she was willing to put herself and her crew through if necessary.
Wardog at 11:09 on 2009-11-17
To be honest, I don't think that's a simple distinction to make. I mean, I've read plenty of absolutely excellent, thoroughly imaginative fantasy novels that were also quite defined by genre tropes, but equally stuff that has been touted as amazingly 'original' has ended up being quite disappointing, and actually not that original. The point being that there's nothing actually inherently wrong about working within your genre, it's just "original" has an implicit value judgement of "better" attached to it.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2009-11-18
Crap! Loginfail seems to've eaten the rest of my comment.

To explain what I've already said: I wasn't attempting to tie the two thoughts together. I just said that the setting struck me as neither generic nor imaginative, I consider it neutral on that axis. Then I happened to mention that additionally, the storyline for me occupies a similar position on the entertaining/meaningful axis. I did not mean to imply that the two axes are interchangeable.

Now as to what I'd intend to say earlier: I also felt that Katsa's and Po's relationship worked quite well. I think Cashore gave them just enough buildup to make the payoff truly satisfying, but not so much as to have the sexual tension between them wear out its welcome. I was also very pleased that finding the Right Guy for her did not at all change her attitudes toward either marriage or motherhood. I love how she's able to find love without contorting herself to fit her man's desires/society's expectations of her.

On the other hand, I kinda wish Cashore had given us a better sense of the cultural context of the seven kingdoms so I could have a clearer idea of why it didn't even occur to Katsa that she could sleep with Po without marrying him. Preferably, something other than “Katsa is a bit of dunce.”

The other thing I wanted to say was that while the female characters in Graceling were great, in terms of sheer numbers they were rather crowded out (or should I say “swamped”) by the male supporting cast. I do hope Fire has a more egalitarian f/m breakdown.

And does anyone else get a relationship vibe between Katsa's cousin (Raffan? Rathan?) and his assistant, Ban?

I don't have much evidence, just this nagging suspicion I developed in that scene where Katsa asks him “you're not in love with me too, are you?” and they both burst out laughing—almost as though they're sharing a private joke. And otherwise, Ban seems completely extraneous to the plot. Plus there's the speculative fiction rule which states that any suitable member of the other sex not madly in love with the protagonist must already be engaged in a loving relationship, or gay, or both.
Wardog at 15:13 on 2009-11-18
Just the idea of an axis, or rather axes, is totally alien to me - in the sense that it's not the way I would choose to look at a text. Also why is being entertaining opposed to being meaningful, I found Graceling both entertaining and meaningful.

I noticed a balance in the gender of the suppporting but then I don't think I was counting. What mattered to me than quantity was that each of the female characters were whole human beings, with non-stereotypical roles to play.

And, yes, I think it's pretty clear that Raffin and Ban are gay.
Dan H at 17:29 on 2009-11-18
Playing numbers games with gender is always a bit difficult because not all fictional characters are created equal.

I'd also suggest that the mostly-male supporting cast is, in the case of Graceling, actually extremely important. One of the big features of Katsa's emotional development is that she grew up in a male-dominated society surrounded almost entirely by men.

The way Graceling deals with gender issues is actually quite subtle and complex, and there are very few characters whose gender is accidental or arbitrary.
Robinson L at 22:02 on 2009-11-18
Well Kyra, I guess we just think about these things a little differently.

I did not, however, intend to create a dichotomy between "entertaining" and "meaningful" (I really must take more care when writing these comments). I guess the term I was reaching for might better be described as "story quality," and instead of saying that, I came up with "entertaining and/or meaningful."

The imbalance is perhaps a bit more noticeable in a full casted audio dramatization. While I agree that fully realized and well-developed female characters are preferable to large numbers of female characters, I feel that both would be better still.

As you say Dan, not all fictional characters are created equal. Looked at in that light, the most important supporting female character is a prepubescent girl who strikes me as more than a little Mary-Sueish (not that I dislike her, but tell me she isn't a little too perfect). Compared to a fistful of equally important (or near enough) supporting male characters.

I can accept the argument that Cashore may have weighted the scale so heavily on the male side as part of the novel's discourse. If so, though, I hope she doesn't try pulling something similar in Fire, as I don't see what good rehashing the same territory she explored in Graceling would do.
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 10:27 on 2009-11-19
<q>not that I dislike her, but tell me she isn't a little too perfect</q>

I love Bitterblue!

But yes, she is a bit too perfect as well. :) I never quite grasped exactly how she was able to resist her father's influence so thoroughly. It would have been a different thing if Bitterblue remembered seeing her mother being killed by him; and then she'd have a visual weapon to use whenever he tried his Jedi powers on her. As it is, she's just speshul that way. :p

Still... I really love Bitterblue and I'm looking forward to the book with her as the main character. Does it count when you don't mind that the character is perfect?
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 10:28 on 2009-11-19
not that I dislike her, but tell me she isn't a little too perfect


I love Bitterblue!

But yes, she is a bit too perfect as well. :) I never quite grasped exactly how she was able to resist her father's influence so thoroughly. (It would have been a different thing if Bitterblue remembered seeing her mother being killed by him; and then she'd have a visual weapon to use whenever he tried his Jedi powers on her.)

Still... I really love Bitterblue and I'm looking forward to the book with her as the main character. Does it count when you don't mind that the character is perfect?
Wardog at 11:07 on 2009-11-19
Kat, agreed - I adore Bitterblue too. She is incredibly brave and incredibly strong but I didn't get too much of a Mary-Sue perfection vibe from her, to be honest. She's also tired, fretful, snappy, and hindered in all things by the fact she's a child with only limited strength and understanding. But, yes, I can't wait for Bitterblue either - I'm especially to see Cashore write a heroine without special powers of any kind.
Dan H at 11:21 on 2009-11-19
I can accept the argument that Cashore may have weighted the scale so heavily on the male side as part of the novel's discourse. If so, though, I hope she doesn't try pulling something similar in Fire, as I don't see what good rehashing the same territory she explored in Graceling would do.


Umm ... I'm not sure what you're saying here.

The "territory" Cashore explores in Graceling can broadly be described as "being a woman". One might think there was enough material there to sustain two books, possibly even three?
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2009-11-19
I love Bitterblue as well. However, it seems to me her incredible empathy, intelligence (heck, even wisdom) and stoicism vastly overshadow her flaws. As far as I'm concerned, a Mary-Sue is still a Mary-Sue, even if you don't mind that the character is too perfect. (I quite liked Jenny, the Doctor's Daughter from the Doctor Who episode of the same title, but she was still an incredible Mary-Sue.)

The "territory" Cashore explores in Graceling can broadly be described as "being a woman". One might think there was enough material there to sustain two books, possibly even three?
Tut-tut, my good man. Four, surely. Maybe five, at the outside.

But I was responding to your thesis that the specific way she explored "being a woman" in Graceling was one which required a majority-male supporting cast. And I say that if so, well enough, but if her next book just so happens also to have a majority-male supporting cast, I'll be more inclined to get disappointed/irritated.
Arthur B at 18:16 on 2009-11-19
I love Bitterblue as well. However, it seems to me her incredible empathy, intelligence (heck, even wisdom) and stoicism vastly overshadow her flaws. As far as I'm concerned, a Mary-Sue is still a Mary-Sue, even if you don't mind that the character is too perfect.
By this logic any character whose positive qualities outweigh their flaws is a Mary Sue.

What's wrong with having a character who is smart, empathetic, and stoic? Such people do exist in the real world.
Dan H at 19:03 on 2009-11-19

But I was responding to your thesis that the specific way she explored "being a woman" in Graceling was one which required a majority-male supporting cast. And I say that if so, well enough, but if her next book just so happens also to have a majority-male supporting cast, I'll be more inclined to get disappointed/irritated.


Okay, let me put this more specifically.

What Kristin Cashore explores in Graceling is the experience of growing up as a woman in a male-dominated society. This pretty much by definition requires a large supporting cast of men if you are going to do it properly. This is because "society" is actually quite complicated, and in order to explore it properly you need several well realised characters to speak and act for it.

As I said earlier, I cannot thing of a single member of the supporting cast who would have been better off as a woman. Worse, I cannot think of a single member of the character who, had they been a woman, would not have utterly undermined the point of the book or - worse - just been flat out sexist.

Raffin: Heir to the throne. Again, patriarchal society, you can't have the heir to the throne be a woman.

Bann: Exists purely as Raffin's lover. Making him female would have been actively sexist.

Giddon: Very specifically represents the element of patriarchy that will attempt to control women by trying to protect them. Your classic "Nice Guy" if you wish.

Po: Contrary to what Joss Whedon may think, lesbianism is not inherently better than heterosexuality. Either way coming to terms with your sexuality is an important part of growing up whatever your sex.

Grandfather Tealiff: Spends the entire book being rescued or passing out. This is another character it would be *actively sexist* to recast as female.

Spymaster Dude: So unimportant I can't even remember his name, and see Raffin re: patriarchy.

Leck: Utterly corrupt, the living embodiment of the dangers of power and privilege. Make him female and you're saying "women can't be trusted with power".

Randa: Like leck, but smaller and meaner. Again the fact that he's a man is sort of integral to the book.

Basically Cashore's books contain a lot of men because she is writing specifically about being a woman in a patriarchal society. If you would be "disappointed" to find a similar setup in Fire this implies one of three things:

1) You believe that "being a woman in a patriarchal society" isn't worth writing about.

2) You believe that "being a woman in a patriarchal society" is worth writing about, but it is not something you, personally, are interested in reading about.

3) You believe that "being a woman in a patriarchal society" is worth writing about, and it is something that you are interested in reading about, but you believe that Cashore should write about it in a different way.

(1) and (2) are basically the same thing, and if you genuinely feel that way it's fine. You and I are not the target audience for this book. It is a book by a woman, about a woman, for women, it's totally okay to decide that a book like that hasn't got much to offer you. If it's (3) then ... well as a man, I'm not sure I would be comfortable passing judgment on the way a woman chooses to write about the experience of being a woman.
Melissa G. at 23:59 on 2009-11-19
I think part of the problem, and I've experienced this too (most of my characters end up male and I've always kind of wondered why), is that often a reader judges a female character more harshly than a male character. It might be because we assume they represent all women, and thus we have to ask ourselves, "What is the author saying about women by having this character?" even if there are other females in the book. There are also far more stigmas attached to woman, I think. For example, if you had a character who was sharp-tongued and didn't take sh*t from anyone, as a man, he comes off kick-ass, as a woman, you run the risk of her coming off as a bitch. It's not fair, but it can happen. Even just as a character, women tend to get pigeonholed a bit. I'm not saying its right, or an excuse for lacking in female characters; I'm just saying that the problem exists.

I hope that made some sort of sense. I feel I'm rambling.
Robinson L at 00:02 on 2009-11-20
Sorry, Arthur, I must not have made myself clear. I didn't mean to suggest that because Bitterblue is smart, empathetic, and stoic, she's a Mary-Sue. I meant that the amount of intelligence (wisdom even), empathy, and stoicism she displays in the book (which is a lot) make her a Mary-Sue. I might not have been so quick to label her a Mary-Sue were she an adult (as you say, such people do exist in the real world) but a twelve-year-old girl displaying that kind of selflessness and maturity strains my willing suspension of disbelief.

Possibly she's supposed to have matured quickly due to Leck's (attempted) abuse, but even if I were prepared to accept such a scenario, I never got the sense that his mistreatment of Bitterblue or her mother was anywhere near that traumatic for her.

Dan, thank you for the explanation, that clears I few things up.

I won't question your analysis of the characters, Dan (although I'm enough of a pedant to point out that your argument for Raffin is complete nonsense, as European history demonstrates quite clearly. Are you suggesting that Moncey with its Queen Bitterblue isn't patriarchal?). However, I think we're looking at the book from opposite directions. You're looking at the characters who're already there and how they work. I'm looking at the characters who aren't there but could have been. What about the characters who would have worked better just as well or better as women? Why weren't they included?

I can think of two possible reasons:

1) The specific discourse of "being a woman in a patriarchal society" Kristin Cashore was writing in required that most, if not all, of the major supporting characters be male.

2) Writing about "being a woman in a patriarchal society" by its very nature requires that most, if not all, of the major supporting characters be male.

If (2) is the case, then I'm going to need to see a really good argument for why it should be so. If (1) is the case, though, then it suggests to me that there are other ways of writing about "being a woman in a patriarchal society" where having a more equal gender balance of well-realized major supporting characters would be nondetrimental to and maybe even enhance the discourse.

Further, if (1) is correct, that would suggest to me that another book with a similarly male-dominant supporting cast would fall into the same narrow range of subdiscourse of "being a woman in a patriarchal society" in which Graceling resides. (I realize this doesn't necessarily follow, but it seems likely.) That's where my line about "rehashing old territory" is coming from.

Of course, must disappointment in that case is not Cashore's problem, nor does it mean that I would dislike the book, probably. Nor am I trying to say what Cashore should do, just what I think she could do and what I would like her to do. As you point out, it's not my business to tell her what to do; but neither is it my business specifically to refrain from asking if she couldn't say what she needs to say with a larger female supporting cast, and whether that might not be even better.

(I guess partially, I'm hypersensitive due to a regular bombardment of stories - even really good stories - with tokenized and/or marginalized female casts because male characters are just the default. I'm pretty thoroughly convinced that Cashore's smarter than that, but that still doesn't tell me why she also considers majority-male casts a necessity.)
Niall at 00:05 on 2009-11-20
Make him female and you're saying "women can't be trusted with power".


I don't agree with this logic; if you have a large cast with diverse roles for women in it, you're not saying anything about women in general by having character x be a woman.

I do agree with the general point that the balance of the cast in Graceling supports the argument being made; I would disagree with your implicit point that it's the only way, or even necessarily the most effective way, to make that argument.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:07 on 2009-11-20
Haven't read the book, but I do think arguments like

Leck: Utterly corrupt, the living embodiment of the dangers of power and privilege. Make him female and you're saying "women can't be trusted with power".

are pretty dangerous. The whole "when you're wearing school uniform you represent the entire school" mode of thought is very prickly after all. To go back to xkcd, see How It Works. The problem isn't with the girl who can't do maths, it's with the guy who sees that she can't do something and applies it to all girls.

Saying that one shouldn't cast a woman in a role which reinforces a sexist stereotype because there are readers who will apply this to all women just seems to be catering to that type of person. If I want to write a novel about a woman who can't do maths then that should be fine - I shouldn't have to second-guess the reader and decide I'll write it about a girl who can't arrange flowers nicely enough.

Which is to say, I don't think casting a woman in the position of a powerful corrupt spymaster would be sexist unless one reads it expecting women to represent their sex (Or, indeed, unless the writer genuinely believes women can't be trusted with power, in which case we'd have bigger problems).
Sonia Mitchell at 00:09 on 2009-11-20
Cross-posted with Niall there. Jinx, as the pre-teens were saying back when I was one.
Arthur B at 00:12 on 2009-11-20
I won't question your analysis of the characters, Dan (although I'm enough of a pedant to point out that your argument for Raffin is complete nonsense, as European history demonstrates quite clearly.

Would that be the European history during which the nobility have practised male-preference primogeniture pretty much exclusively up to the present day?

2) Writing about "being a woman in a patriarchal society" by its very nature requires that most, if not all, of the major supporting characters be male.

If (2) is the case, then I'm going to need to see a really good argument for why it should be so.

How about "male dominated societies make it inherently difficult, if not impossible, for women to attain any degree of power and agency, and there's only so many powerless, agencyless characters you can fit into a fantasy adventure story?"

Or perhaps "by having most noteworthy individuals that Katsa meets be male, Cashore underlines the point that wherever you turn in Katsa's world most of the folks calling the shots are dudes?"

Either seems applicable in this case. I am sure there are more.
Melissa G. at 00:32 on 2009-11-20
Saying that one shouldn't cast a woman in a role which reinforces a sexist stereotype because there are readers who will apply this to all women just seems to be catering to that type of person. If I want to write a novel about a woman who can't do maths then that should be fine - I shouldn't have to second-guess the reader and decide I'll write it about a girl who can't arrange flowers nicely enough.

I agree. I do feel that it's unfair that writers feel they can't write a female character who is, say, demure and emotional and can't fight just because people will get all upset and start accusing them of being sexist. Girls like that exist. Girls of all kinds exist! I think what's important is representing a variety of female characters - weak, strong, whatever. My friend and I always complain how just because a girl likes shopping or dressing up and doing her make-up doesn't make her a moron. If a female character is well-rounded and multi-faceted, I usually jump up and do a dance because it doesn't happen as often as it should.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:52 on 2009-11-20
I didn't mean to rehash your point - I think quite a few of us were posting at the same time :-)

My friend and I always complain how just because a girl likes shopping or dressing up and doing her make-up doesn't make her a moron. If a female character is well-rounded and multi-faceted, I usually jump up and do a dance because it doesn't happen as often as it should.

Yes, this exactly. I agree that it's a problem if people only write about women behaving in a certain way (ie. shopping) because that's all they think women can do. However it's equally a problem if critics say that you should *never* write about a woman who shops because of sexism.

It's still holding women to a different standard, because male characters are seen as individuals while female ones have the weight of representing the sisterhood. It's just this time it's done under the banner of being progressive.
Melissa G. at 00:54 on 2009-11-20
I didn't mean to rehash your point - I think quite a few of us were posting at the same time :-)

No worries. :-) Yeah, I think we all just jumped there all at once.
Sonia Mitchell at 00:57 on 2009-11-20
It's like the Okavango here. Once one brave wildebeest decides to cross the river, the rest all follow together.
Rami at 03:04 on 2009-11-20
It's like the Okavango here.

I love that simile.

My friend and I always complain how just because a girl likes shopping or dressing up and doing her make-up doesn't make her a moron.

I have to admit that I have frequently been guilty of looking down on women who like those kinds of things ☹ I think a problem is that our brains may not be able to deal with lots of different people, and so unless you know someone who really challenges the norms it's far too easy to just use stereotypes as handy guidelines. I know I found it much harder to stereotype women who like to shop after I met someone who loves malls and dressing up and doing her nails... and happens to be a quantum physicist whose day job is miles outside my comprehension.
Leia at 03:43 on 2009-11-20
Would that be the European history during which the nobility have practised male-preference primogeniture pretty much exclusively up to the present day?



What about the Marys, the Elizabeths and the eternal Victoria? I'm always very wary of people using historical context to explain why there were no women in power in the "old days" or no Blacks outside Africa. Most of the time, it's not even historical accurate. Then it's conveniently hand-waved in the same story when it fits the plot: Queen Bitterblue.


How about "male dominated societies make it inherently difficult, if not impossible, for women to attain any degree of power and agency, and there's only so many powerless, agencyless characters you can fit into a fantasy adventure story?"



Well, as part of Cashore's intended audience - i.e. female - I think I would prefer more stories where the Heroine is not also the only female character who tries to challenge the status quo. The ship captain already comes from a culture where the status quo allows her to be empowered - so she's not challenging it. It would have been nice to have some innkeeper's wife who baked bread for Kasha's rebellion/spy-ring and kept the King's soldiers busy with free beer while the rebellion held their secret meetings. Or if one of the girls who ran Kasha's bath murmured something about how it was cool that the Lady could defend herself when she needed to. I mean, I can buy that it takes one woman to speak up against the system but the way rebellions and revolutions work is that that one person is usually voicing the present but silent disgruntlement of a greater number.

As it stands, Kasha ends the story thinking about setting up a training school for girls and one is left wondering where she'll find her students.


The problem isn't with the girl who can't do maths, it's with the guy who sees that she can't do something and applies it to all girls.



Well said. And, knowing full well that I'm in the danger of commiting that same crime with this statement, I actually have a big problem with Bann existing purely as the Token Gay Lover. It bugs me to admit this, but at least Alec and Magnus from the Clare books added more to the story than just the confirmation that the author was being "diverse".
Melissa G. at 04:12 on 2009-11-20
I actually have a big problem with Bann existing purely as the Token Gay Lover. It bugs me to admit this, but at least Alec and Magnus from the Clare books added more to the story than just the confirmation that the author was being "diverse".

Yeah, there seems to be a trend going around of including gay characters...for the sake of including them? I haven't read the book so I'm not saying Cashore did this. I just wanted to point out something I've said before but not here. There's a difference between making a gay character and making a character who just happens to be gay. I'm all for the inclusion of gay characters in literature (yes, please!); it's when "gay" becomes their whole character that I find a problem with it.
Arthur B at 09:04 on 2009-11-20
What about the Marys, the Elizabeths and the eternal Victoria?

None of them would have ever been in power if there were a male heir to hand.

Actually, in the case of Mary I and Elizabeth I, neither of them came to power until the death of Edward, their younger, sicklier, and generally vastly less suited to actually being monarch brother. And Elizabeth basically had to forego marriage for her entire life in order to retain her power (whereas Mary's marriage to Philip of Spain caused the nation to collectively shit bricks in fear of being annexed by Spain). So those are pretty much the worst two counterexamples you could come up with - yes, they were both powerful, but in order to get a sniff of power in the first place they had to a) patiently wait until their brother died, hoping that he didn't have any kids in the meantime, and b) make sacrifices which a man in their position would never have been asked to make. (As for Victoria, by the time she came to power the monarchy was basically there to provide a nice figurehead, and genuine political power lay exclusively in the hands of Parliament. A bunch of men elected by men.)

Just because England occasionally had female monarchs doesn't mean it wasn't a male-dominated society in general. If anything, the fact that most people can only name 3 pre-20th Century female English monarchs is evidence of exactly how rare it was for people to buck the trend.
Shim at 09:08 on 2009-11-20
Make him female and you're saying "women can't be trusted with power".

I don't agree with this logic; if you have a large cast with diverse roles for women in it, you're not saying anything about women in general by having character x be a woman.

I do think arguments like

Leck: Utterly corrupt, the living embodiment of the dangers of power and privilege. Make him female and you're saying "women can't be trusted with power".

are pretty dangerous...Which is to say, I don't think casting a woman in the position of a powerful corrupt spymaster would be sexist unless one reads it expecting women to represent their sex


I haven't read the book, and I'm not sure if this is exactly what Dan was getting at, but anyway... it seems to me that the smaller one subset of a cast gets (e.g. "women"), the more they're likely to seem like representatives. If this book is also using gender in a very careful way, to explore

the experience of growing up as a woman in a male-dominated society (Dan)

then it seems likely to me that characters are also a bit symbolic/representative of influences. Or something like that...

In a context like that, with very few female characters, it seems to me that making just one or two of those mentioned female might end up seeming sexist because of implications like those Dan suggested. As Niall said, a large diverse cast can overcome this; but Graceling doesn't have one, and making several of the characters female would presumably wreck the "patriarchy exploration" part in the process.

Also Niall, I'm not quite sure what argument you mean in your 00:05 comment. Could you clarify that?

But yes, I agree that the "everything is representative of its 'kind'" argument brings up all kinds of problems.
Wardog at 09:28 on 2009-11-20
Not to put words in Dan's mouth here but I think he over-rhetoricised his point in order to respond to Robinson's Just Plain Stupid notion that because the book has a largely male supporting cast, it didn't score enough feminism points.

I genuinely think it's got to the stage of being picky for the sake of it. Ultimately I'd say Graceling is feminist-friendly fantasy - criticising it because it doesn't have enough homosexuals in it, or because it isn't a sufficiently correct portrayal of the socio-cultural political of Medieval Europe, or because it does attempt to address every aspect of gender-inequality in life, in art and in fantasy strikes me as just plain churlish.

There are plenty of women doing admirable things in Graceling, it's just Cashore doesn't stand up, yelling "LOOK HERE IS A WOMAN DOING AN ADMIRABLE THING BECAUSE I AM A FEMINIST" every time it happens. I mean, there's Po's Mother, there's Bitterblue, there's Bitterblue's mother, there's Helda, there's the sea Captain all of whom have an immense impact on the events in the text. Without Helda, Katsa would likely never have had the strength to form the Shadow Council, without his mother Po would be a political puppet, without her mother Bitterblue would be dead... and before anyone says something, I think it's *important* and *deliberate* that these women acheive what they achieve from within the system as it were.
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 09:30 on 2009-11-20
Arthur B, I think the point that Leia and Robinson are making about female monarchs is that ... they existed. Sure, they existed under shitty circumstances but they are not anomalies. If Kristin Cashore chose not to make Raffin - the King's gay only son - the female heir to the throne and facing pretty much the same challenges that her male counterpart already does (he is a "weakling" of an heir in his father's eyes), it's not because a female!Raffin is something that is unheard of in the annals of history.

Like Robinson L, "looking at the characters who aren't there but could have been", a female!Raffin, an "Acting" Crown Princess living under the shadow that her crown may be taken by a baby half-brother, would fit a story about women struggling for power in male patriachal societies. As Leia said, it would have been nice if Kasha wasn't the only woman who was unhappy with the status quo. That would make one more awesome lady in the story. That can't be a bad thing!

I haven't read the book so I'm not saying Cashore did this. I just wanted to point out something I've said before but not here. There's a difference between making a gay character and making a character who just happens to be gay.


I have read the book and this might have been the only other thing I didn't like about it. The other thing was Leck being cartoon!evil. But Bann is such a shadowy character that until now, I had completely forgotten about him.

I didn't mean to suggest that because Bitterblue is smart, empathetic, and stoic, she's a Mary-Sue. I meant that the amount of intelligence (wisdom even), empathy, and stoicism she displays in the book (which is a lot) make her a Mary-Sue.


I noticed that as well. I didn't mind it as much as I minded her ability to block Leck's powers which falls too neatly into the box of "Super-speshul, unexplained powers". But, like I said, Bitterblue is such a delightful character that I am more than willing to over-look this.
Wardog at 09:35 on 2009-11-20
Just to keep going on about it, this time in response to Kat, one the things I really like about Graceling and the way Cashore writes, is that she kept her focus squarely on her main character and somehow managed to write reasonably well-paced fantasy novel that wasn't 800 pages long. I think we have to remember that Katsa, as a heroine, is young, and a little bit too caught up with her own struggles, and her own injustices, to really look around her and *see* what's truly going on. This is partly, I think, one of the many things she learns over the course of the book, and something that both Po and Bitterblue help her learn. Although I *loved* Cashore's characters and would gladly have taken more Raffin, more Bann and more anybody else she wanted, I think they served to provide a nuanced background for Katsa's personal story without detracting or interfering from it. And let's remember Graceling is the first book of a series - I imagine we'll see much more Raffin in later books, and of course, Bitterblue... *excitement*
Niall at 10:22 on 2009-11-20
In a context like that, with very few female characters, it seems to me that making just one or two of those mentioned female might end up seeming sexist because of implications like those Dan suggested.


As Kyra says, actually there are plenty of female characters. And to continue with the case of Leck specifically, given that he ends up being replaced by Bitterblue, I cannot see how making him a woman would carry the implications Dan suggests it would.

But that doesn't mean I think it should have been done. When I talk about a book's "argument" I'm referencing the description of sf and fantasy works that says they are "arguments with the world"; that everything in them necessarily engages in dialogue with the world as it is, and makes a statement about the relationship between the textual and real worlds. In the case of Graceling, that argument is, as Dan says, about growing up as a woman in a male-dominated society, like our society; so it matters that the figures with the most power are men, because they tend to be in our world.
Dan H at 11:02 on 2009-11-20
Wow, a lot of responses:

Sonia:

Saying that one shouldn't cast a woman in a role which reinforces a sexist stereotype because there are readers who will apply this to all women just seems to be catering to that type of person.


This, unfortunately, is the same logic that leads to things like the "colour blindness" defense of Earthsea and Avatar. If you have the choice to perpetuate a stereotype or not to perpetuate a stereotype you should choose *not* to because perpetuating stereotypes *actively harms people*.

The notion that women cannot be trusted with power is actually something Graceling specifically addresses - the whole "her grace is killing/her grace is survival" thing is *specifically* about the tendency of society to demonize powerful women. If the main villain of the book had been a woman whose power had turned dangerous it would have reinforced *the very ideas it was critiquing*.

It's perfectly okay to write books where the villains are women. It's perfectly okay to write books where women do horrible things to people. It's not sensible to suggest that a book which is specifically about the power dynamics of relationships between men and women in a patriarchal society would be improved by making its villain female.

Kat:

Like Robinson L, "looking at the characters who aren't there but could have been", a female!Raffin, an "Acting" Crown Princess living under the shadow that her crown may be taken by a baby half-brother, would fit a story about women struggling for power in male patriachal societies.


Again, I think this misses the point.

Graceling is not about women struggling for power in male dominated societies, it's about one, particular woman struggling for - not even power particularly, but freedom, identity and a sense of self - in a male dominated society.

Making Raffin female would have *profoundly lessened* the book for precisely that reason. Part of what Cashore was trying to capture with Graceling (as far as I can tell) was a sense of isolation. You can't have that if you've got another character who's in exactly the same predicament as her. Suddently Katsa would either have to change her behaviour entirely (staying in the Middluns to support Raffin) or else wind up looking utterly selfish and hypocritical. And either way it would have reduced a quite subtle, quite complex analysis of power dynamics to a rather simplistic "women good, men bad" axis, which would have done nobody any favours.
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 11:18 on 2009-11-20
Although I *loved* Cashore's characters and would gladly have taken more Raffin, more Bann and more anybody else she wanted, I think they served to provide a nuanced background for Katsa's personal story without detracting or interfering from it.


Do you think that Raffin being female and essentially playing the same role in the text would have made him less a background character? Make him take the spotlight from Kasha? Because there's a part of me that thinks that and it's making me wonder about that theory that says that many people (men and women) will regard a room half-full with women as too many women.

In the case of Graceling, that argument is, as Dan says, about growing up as a woman in a male-dominated society, like our society; so it matters that the figures with the most power are men, because they tend to be in our world.


I don't think the argument is about Graceling having more women in power or even more women doing admirable things. I think it's about it having more women who are discontent with the male-dominated society (i.e. outside of Po's island which appears to be progressive in terms of gender equality. So the ship captain and Po's mother and even Bitterblue, his niece, don't actually count). They aren't doing anything about the male-dominated society in the scale Kasha is but they aren't resigned to it either. I get the point that was made that at the end of the book, you have to wonder where the girls that go to Kasha's school will come from.
Sonia Mitchell at 11:33 on 2009-11-20
This, unfortunately, is the same logic that leads to things like the "colour blindness" defense of Earthsea and Avatar.

I don't think that's a fair point at all.

However I'll have to bow out, because as I said I haven't read the book and was speaking rather generally.
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 11:44 on 2009-11-20
Sorry Dan, we must have posted at about the same time.

If the main villain of the book had been a woman whose power had turned dangerous it would have reinforced *the very ideas it was critiquing*.


That's a very good point. I just knew Leck had to be a guy, but I couldn't put my finger on why.

Making Raffin female would have *profoundly lessened* the book for precisely that reason. Part of what Cashore was trying to capture with Graceling (as far as I can tell) was a sense of isolation. You can't have that if you've got another character who's in exactly the same predicament as her.


A female!Raffin won't have been exactly in the same predicament at Kasha, at least, if you assume that Raffin being female would have added another layer to his father's present discontent with him and not changed his personality. Nor should female!Raffin make Kasha's decision to leave any more selfish: Randa was still alive and able to produce a male heir at any time. Unless Kasha was going to remain in the Middluns to take care of any bastard brothers that might threaten Raffin's crown...?
Shim at 11:44 on 2009-11-20
...actually there are plenty of female characters.

Given I know almost nothing about this book, I'll give up trying to analyse it now...

Ah, the "argument" bit makes sense now. I read it before as meaning the phrase you quoted from Dan: Make him female and you're saying "women can't be trusted with power". The paragraph didn't really seem to make much sense that way (i.e. why would you, Niall, want to make a case for that anyway?).
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 11:51 on 2009-11-20
Graceling is not about women struggling for power in male dominated societies, it's about one, particular woman struggling for - not even power particularly, but freedom, identity and a sense of self - in a male dominated society.


Not to be redundant but isn't the reason why it's a male-dominated society in the first place, because women don't have power? Sure the book focuses on one woman's struggle and there's nothing wrong with that. But why would this impact or theme be lessened if Kasha's story had been told against the backdrop of other women's struggles?
Wardog at 12:49 on 2009-11-20
But why would this impact or theme be lessened if Kasha's story had been told against the backdrop of other women's struggles?


I, uh, rather thought it was, to be honest? It's just the way Cashore has chosen to explore it is through the lens of one character. I didn't feel there was a lack of explicit female struggling going on, I just thought it didn't particularly need to be constantly addressed by the text. It's kind of got to the point where we're criticising Cashore for doing something one way, instead of another way.
Arthur B at 12:58 on 2009-11-20
Arthur B, I think the point that Leia and Robinson are making about female monarchs is that ... they existed. Sure, they existed under shitty circumstances but they are not anomalies.

If we take the medieval period in England as spanning around 500 years (from the Norman Conquest to the Elizabethan period), then as far as female monarchs of England are concerned you've got Matilda (whose reign was contested throughout by Stephen), Mary, and Elizabeth. Oh, and there was Lady Jane Grey, but she's not often counted because a) she's generally regarded as a puppet candidate propped up by a desperate anyone-but-Mary movement, and b) she was convicted of treason and killed, and was monarch for barely a week.

4 instances. 500 years. Arithmetic mean once every 125 years, and even then 3 of those instances are packed within one generation at the end of the period.

If you've got an event which only happens once every few lifetimes, how is that not anomalous?

If Kristin Cashore chose not to make Raffin - the King's gay only son - the female heir to the throne and facing pretty much the same challenges that her male counterpart already does (he is a "weakling" of an heir in his father's eyes), it's not because a female!Raffin is something that is unheard of in the annals of history.

But in the annals of history the solution to the King's "problem" of having an heir he considers unsuitable would be very different.

If you are not happy with a female heir, you could just keep shagging until you spawned a male one. It worked fine for Henry VIII.

If you have a male heir you're not keen on, though, it's a very different matter. In theory you could disinherit him. In practice, even a disinherited male heir hanging around would pose a problem for any preferred heir, because there'd always be the threat of opponents of your preferred successor using your disinherited son as a figurehead to spark off a dispute over succession. In medieval Europe such disputes tended to play out in battlefields, not courtrooms, so any monarch who cared even slightly about the fate of their country after their death would be loathe to just disinherit a kid. Murder is of course an option, if you don't mind being compared to King Herod for the rest of history, and even in medieval times you had to be especially psychotic to kill your own kids.

At least in England, the monarchs seem to have been satisfied to just let their sons inherit the crown, and hope that they will rise to the occasion when the time comes, whereas female heirs - regardless of their qualities - were regarded as generally a really big problem.

Not to be redundant but isn't the reason why it's a male-dominated society in the first place, because women don't have power? Sure the book focuses on one woman's struggle and there's nothing wrong with that. But why would this impact or theme be lessened if Kasha's story had been told against the backdrop of other women's struggles?

Dan points out the isolation angle earlier, which I think is key. If Katsa isn't isolated, if there are women out there openly struggling for the same things Katsa is looking for, then a) it's just plain less exciting than Katsa trying to sort these things out without help, and b) suddenly it's no longer just about Katsa the character, but women in general, because by providing the other struggles as a backdrop you're inevitably inviting the reader to draw the comparison and make a link.
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 13:15 on 2009-11-20
If you've got an event which only happens once every few lifetimes, how is that not anomalous?


Er... Sorry about the word choice then. I was just trying to say that it wasn't "Impossible" that Raffin could be a girl. What Dan said was:

Raffin: Heir to the throne. Again, patriarchal society, you can't have the heir to the throne be a woman.


But history shows that there have been female monarch ins patriarchal societies so that statement isn't accurate. If Cashore had made Raffin female, it would have still worked. That's all.

If you are not happy with a female heir, you could just keep shagging until you spawned a male one.


I had this private theory that Randa couldn't have any more children, or he'd have got a spare to his heir.


I didn't feel there was a lack of explicit female struggling going on, I just thought it didn't particularly need to be constantly addressed by the text. It's kind of got to the point where we're criticising Cashore for doing something one way, instead of another way.


I guess I'm always a fan of "more" awesome female characters, especially from a writer who's clearly good at creating them. That's a compliment to Cashore, isn't it? I think Graceling is awesome. This discussion has made me see ways in which it could have been more awesome. Is there anything wrong with that?
Dan H at 13:19 on 2009-11-20
I don't think that's a fair point at all.


Actually you're right, it was a cheap shot, sorry.

All I meant was that I think we've got caught up between specifics and generalities. Obviously it would be possible to imagine a book in which there was a powerful, corrupt female antagonist, which was not in any way sexist, but that book would not be Graceling.

The reason I reached for the Avatar/Earthsea analogy was, I admit, partly just reflex defensiveness but partly because I was talking specifically about *changing* the existing text. But yeah, sorry, it was cheap of me.
Leia at 13:28 on 2009-11-20
Just repeating what Kat said: the point wasn't that female monarchs were a dime a dozen in history. The point is that they were not absent from it. In fact, Medieval Europe is too far away. Too often the historical "accuracy" is used in application to fantasy worlds. Let's stick to the Seven Kingdoms.

Queen Bitterblue exists.

In the same world. In a similar patriachal society as Randa's. (And child to an even more twisted King-father).

A child-woman monarch.

How is Queen-to-be Raffina an impossibility?
Arthur B at 13:38 on 2009-11-20
Er... Sorry about the word choice then. I was just trying to say that it wasn't "Impossible" that Raffin could be a girl. What Dan said was:

Raffin: Heir to the throne. Again, patriarchal society, you can't have the heir to the throne be a woman.


But history shows that there have been female monarch ins patriarchal societies so that statement isn't accurate. If Cashore had made Raffin female, it would have still worked. That's all.

It would have worked in the sense that, legalistically, she'd be the heir, assuming they follow the same general rules as we did in medieval Europe.

It wouldn't have worked in the sense that the more women Cashore put in positions of power and influence, the less male-dominated the society depicted would seem. In fact, I could guarantee you that if Raffin had been female, people would be arguing that the society depicted wasn't really male-dominated, and point to female-Raffin as proof. They would be wrong, but why give them that wiggle room in the first place?

Which comes back to the basic point: yes, more significant characters could have been female. But why should Cashore blunt the "this society is male-dominated" message when she could be driving it home with full force? Why should Cashore lessen the perils and obstacles that face Katsa - and thus lessen her heroism in overcoming them - when she could pile 'em higher instead?
Melissa G. at 13:39 on 2009-11-20
I also am now bowing out of the debate as I was also speaking generally and cannot address this book particularly. I didn't mean to insult Graceling or Kristin Cashore. ^^

Have fun with the debating!
Arthur B at 13:41 on 2009-11-20
Let's stick to the Seven Kingdoms.

Queen Bitterblue exists.

In the same world. In a similar patriachal society as Randa's. (And child to an even more twisted King-father).

A child-woman monarch.

How is Queen-to-be Raffina an impossibility?

Queen Bitterblue exists specifically because of Katsa's heroism, though; she's the end result of Katsa's victory over her society. If Raffina were female, and a viable choice to be heir, then what need for Bitterblue?
Leia at 14:14 on 2009-11-20
Bitterblue owes her life to Kasha not her crown. She's Queen because she's the child of the late King and in Cashore's world, that is claim enough. Kasha doesn't put her on the throne. She just keeps her alive long enough to be able to claim it. But the system that makes it possible for a child queen to be crowned is already part of Cashore's world.

I'm not sure I like the implication that Raffina being a heiress makes Bitterblue redundant. Forget that they play polar opposite roles in the story and have opposite relationships with Kasha - it's too much of the "we can't have two [Insert Characteristic X] *girls* in the story. In fact I'm uncomfortable with the whole argument that a woman's story loses its power when there are more women in it. It's an argument that never comes up when the protagonist is male.
Wardog at 14:24 on 2009-11-20
Looks like we're all bowing out here. I think the debate is certainly interesting but I hope things didn't get too heated and nobody is hurt/irritated/furstrated with anyone else. If I was overly defensive regarding either Cashore or Graceling, it's just because I think in these sort of discussions it's all too easy to lose track of what the book *did do* in the welter of speculation about what it *doesn't do*. And when you get right down to it, Graceling has been some of the best, feminist-friendly fantasy I've read for a long time.
http://katsullivan.insanejournal.com/ at 14:26 on 2009-11-20
But the system that makes it possible for a child queen to be crowned is already part of Cashore's world.


Yes, this is what I thought. I think you could even argue that Bitterblue claiming her throne so easily - because Leck as a sick, crazy Dad is the obstacle she overcomes not the rejection of her own people against a child Queen - might even do what Arthur B thinks Raffina would have done and make the world less patriarchal while a Crown Princess Raffina who is shown to be resented/endangered because of society's expectations of their monarch's gender underlines the patriarchal philosophy of the world.

Wow, that was a long run-on sentence.

Yes, I too am uncomfortable with the idea that more women in a story makes it less powerful for the one woman the story is about. For one thing, I don't believe that. But I don't know how to argue that or express or explain that.

Er... so that means I'm also bowing out of the discussion. I think I've pretty much said everything I have to say and the bottom line is that though it's hard not to find room for improvement in anything, I still like Graceling and Cashore's writing a lot. That's all.
Arthur B at 14:28 on 2009-11-20
Kasha doesn't put her on the throne. She just keeps her alive long enough to be able to claim it.

You see, I'm enough of a pragmatist that I think the two are the same thing.

In fact I'm uncomfortable with the whole argument that a woman's story loses its power when there are more women in it.

This would obviously be an untrue thing to say of all women in all stories.

That doesn't mean it isn't true for Katsa in Katsa's story, which is about how Katsa found her way in a male-dominated society.

It's an argument that never comes up when the protagonist is male.

Wouldn't that be because there just ain't that many stories about men striving to find their identity in a female-dominated society?
Leia at 14:48 on 2009-11-20
If Bitterblue had outlived Leck and her people revolted against the idea of a Queen and, let's say, dug up the records of Leck's foster parents to trace the rightful King, no matter how obscure the relationship, the matter would have been out of Kasha or Bitterblue's hands. It's like arguing that it's Harry's ingenuity that saves him in GoF when it's Rowling making his wand match Voldemorte.

Only in Cashore's world, by her rules, it's apparently not a big deal that a woman is crowned. Like Kat said, Raffina struggling to just be Queen-to-be as opposed to Bitterblue waltzing into her throne would be more fitting to the patriachal society the story is supposed to be set in.

No, there aren't that many stories about men like that. But there are far too many stories where the male:female ratio is skewed to the men's side. For A Lot of Very Good Reasons. I guess I'm just skeptical of One More Good Reason why women are in the minority. And I'm saying that as a woman, part of the "target" audience.

This is probably a good time for me to bow out.
Arthur B at 15:18 on 2009-11-20
It's probably wise for everyone to bow out at this point. There is always, after all, the possibility that Kristin actually knows precisely what she is doing and intends to introduce a greater and greater proportion of female characters over the course of the series to reflect the development of the culture of the Kingdoms, and there's only so far we can take this discussion when we're only seeing a portion of her plans.
Wardog at 15:23 on 2009-11-20
Okay I meant to bow out and failed.

But there are far too many stories where the male:female ratio is skewed to the men's side. For A Lot of Very Good Reasons. I guess I'm just skeptical of One More Good Reason why women are in the minority.


Again, it's possible my love for Cashore is blinding me to inequalities in the text but I genuinely don't believe this kind of thing can be judged numerically, and I think we might be doing Cashore a grave injustice by looking and her text and counting up the men and counting up the women and trying to work out whether it would be better if x person was a man, or y person was a woman.

I mean if a book has 100 women and 3 men in it, and the women all stand around in the background, or bake cookies for the men, or are constantly raped by passing barbarians, I think we'd all agree that it was a problem. And, let's face it, it's tokenism.

If you have a text with 5 men and 5 woman, and the women are all terrible stereotypes then, again, I think we'd all agree that it was a problem.

And so on.

To be honest - and no offence to Dan - I think the "these characters have to be men for this reason" rhetoric did more harm than good, although I know exactly why you did it. I think we're looking at this completely the wrong way round - the point is not why the men in Graceling are men, but what Cashore is saying, and doing, with her female characters.

The point is, I would argue, is that they're all fantastic characters, with a meaningful place in the text, no matter how brief their appearance. Despite living in a patriarchal world, they have agency, they have strength, they are, individual and wonderful. They have significant interactions with Katsa. They are, most importantly, people, rather than token women stuffed into the text to give a semblance of gender equality. I hope this makes sense.
Rami at 18:13 on 2009-11-20
Congratulations! This article has leaped into the top five most discussed so far. Perhaps we should let Cashore write another book before we start extrapolating about her plans or worldview, though.
Dan H at 18:29 on 2009-11-20
If you'll bear with me for a second, I'm going to a do a play-by play of how the discussion has got to this frankly unhelpful stage.

We've got to the point now where people who haven't read the book are arguing that the book should be changed in order to remove features it does not in fact possess. In particular people are arguing that it should contain fewer male supporting characters. It contains five.

Here is how it went down.

Robinson, L posted a comment further up in which he suggested that the book contained too many male characters. Since the book is remarkable for the large number of interesting, well rounded, well developed female characters it contains Kyra and I both thought this was a bit odd, and pointed out that while in some parts of the book, Katsa is indeed surrounded almost entirely by men, that's kind of the point.

Robinson L, whose impressions of the book I should remind you came from an audio dramatization and not from, well, actually reading it, continued to insist that the book contained too many men.

Kyra and I once again tried to explain that the book actually contained an awful lot of women, and that the men it did contain were there to make some very specific points about the relationships one has with men when one grows up as a woman in a male dominated society.

At this point, Robinson L took it upon himself to declare that Kristin Cashore was wrong to write the book the way she chose to write it (he insists he is not saying this, that he is merely saying it would be "better" if she wrote it differently, this is in fact the same thing). He insisted that he would be "very disappointed" if she "went over the same ground" in her next book and declared that he "hoped she didn't pull something like that again."

He then went on to pat himself on the back for how awesomely tolerant and feminist this made him.

This made Kyra so angry, so offended, and so genuinely hurt, that she did not feel herself able to reply in an appropriate or professional manner. Because, and let me be very clear about this, when you are a man, saying you know how a woman could improve the book she wrote about growing up as a woman is fantastically fucking patronising.

I attempted to reply on Kyra's behalf in order to make three points. Firstly that there actually aren't very many men in the book. Secondly that the men that are there are mostly there to make very specific points about what interacting with men is like for women and thirdly that claiming you know how to write about being a woman better than an actual woman is kind of a problem.

Unfortunately I overstated my case, people went off on a variety of tangents, and we're now in the farcical situation where people are strenuously arguing that a book entirely about women has somehow dropped the ball because it contains a few male supporting characters.

Sorry to have such a go at you, Robinson, but Kyra and I are both really quite angry, because you took a powerful, beautiful book which says genuinely important things about growing up as a young woman and got everybody to judge it by a set of standards which you, as a man, took it upon yourself to define. The main character is a woman. The most important supporting characters are women. The book is entirely about women. The entire last third of the book focuses entirely on two women completely alone in the wilderness. Yet you presume to find it lacking because of a "majority-male supporting cast".

As Kyra initially refrained from saying: how fucking dare you.
Wardog at 20:22 on 2009-11-20
And it's irritating as hell that some really interesting discussion has been dominated and buried by this nonsense as well :(

Although I'm thrilled to have swooped into the top 5 discussed articles I am conscious that things have got more than a little bitter - so I just wanted to thank everyone for their time and their thoughts.

And for the record I still love Kristin Cashore and want to marry her.
Robinson L at 21:30 on 2009-11-20
Kyra, I am so deeply, incredibly, unbelievably sorry to have offended you. I'm still not sure how on Earth I ended up giving the impression of the extremely judgmental and sanctimonious attitude you and Dan attribute to me. But apparently I have upset you terribly, and for that, I am truly, deeply sorry.

I may not agree with all of you about the gender breakdown of the casting in future books. However, something that obviously did not come through anywhere near clearly enough in my previous comments is that as far as I was concerned, this was a very minor point – in other words, not a big deal. I was under the impression (grossly mistaken, I realize now, to my shame) that this was a light philosophical discussion. I hope you will believe me when I say I never would have continued shooting off my mouth like that if I'd known that this was not the case.

You've said: Ultimately I'd say Graceling is feminist-friendly fantasy. And I agree with that. And further: And for the record I still love Kristin Cashore and want to marry her.. Good for you. I did not have that strong a reaction, but she's certainly a good writer and has written a very good book. It seems that my overall feelings about the book got lost in the argument over one detail. Once again, I am so, so sorry. I only wish there was something more I could do to amend the damage I see now that I have done.
Wardog at 22:09 on 2009-11-20
It's not the fact that you didn't like how many male characters there are in Graceling, it was the more the idea that you thought the themes Cashore explores and the way she explores them - which I would define broadly as 'being a woman' and 'from the perspective of a woman' as evidence that she has failed as a writer. Quite frankly I'm sick to the back teeth of men telling female writers how they should portray women and what they should be writing. If you consider that as light philosophy then fair enough, but I rather imagine that's a prerogative you only get as a man. But you absolutely don't have to apologise to me - you think what you think, and I'll think what I think. I'm kind of hoping we can salvage the discussion actually - I've completely lost several of Kat's very interesting points in the noise.
Dan H at 17:46 on 2009-11-21

Yes, I too am uncomfortable with the idea that more women in a story makes it less powerful for the one woman the story is about. For one thing, I don't believe that. But I don't know how to argue that or express or explain that.


Just quickly replying to this post from Kat which got lost in all the fail.

You are of course quite right, I'm afraid I wound up arguing a more extreme position than I intended, apologies.

I don't believe that the fact that the Shadow Council consists entirely of men represents any kind of flaw in the book - not even a minor one. On the other hand I do in fact see that arguing that "these characters have to be male" is a dangerous path to go down - as you observe it leads to some nasty implications because it leads quickly to the point where you're saying "whoops, can't have too many women in this." Obviously that wasn't my intention but that doesn't change the fact that it wound up being the implication of my argument.

So, yeah, you're dead right on that, sorry.
Melissa G. at 21:19 on 2009-11-21
It brings up an interesting question to me. Where does the author's freedom to create characters as he/she sees them (as man, woman, white, black, straight, gay, etc) end, and the burden of social responsibility come in where an author feels compelled by social issues and things to not only include diversity but to make sure he/she doesn't overshadow the diversity? (Wow, long, sorry.) In my opinion, it's just as detrimental or offensive to include a character just to have a woman, gay person, or minority.

Any thoughts on this?
Jamie Johnston at 19:19 on 2009-11-22
I haven't got anything I'd call a thought, Melissa, but here's a sketch of the beginnings of a thought:

It's perhaps useful to separate in one's mind the design of the story-world (i.e. the society in which the story takes place, or more specifically the parts of the society that we see, including the sorts of people we encounter) and the presentation of it (specifically what effects any given aspect of the society is shown to have, and whether that aspect is presented as good or bad).

Having made that mental distinction, one could say, "I shall design whatever social setting feels right, and choose my cast of principal, supporting, and background characters accordingly. Then, once I've done that, I'll step back and look at it. Very carefully. I'll turn over every aspect of it and ask myself what I think about it, whether it's positive or negative, whether I approve or disapprove. And then I'll write my story (or, if I've already written it, I'll revise it) to make sure that I reveal the positives and the negatives appropriately, that I don't seem to approve or reinforce the negatives, that I give due weight and approval to the positives."

I don't know whether that's the best approach, or a good one, or even a practicable one. I haven't written any fiction except short comedy sketches for many years, so I certainly haven't consciously tried that approach. But it strikes me as one possible way to be free and creative without feeling overburdened by worry, and also to be suitably burdened by worry without letting it stifle the creativity.

On the other hand, perhaps that wouldn't work. Perhaps, as both Robinson and Dan have both at times seemed to suggest earlier in this discussion, it isn't enough to make sure that the presentation expresses the right approvals and disapprovals: perhaps the very design of the society and the composition of the cast of characters can perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes and reinforce bad habits of thought.

In that case, maybe the writer can take the mental separation I've suggested and use it the other way: start by thinking of the messages she wants to send or the stereotypes she wants to undermine or avoid, and build these consciously into the design of the world and, in broad terms, the cast. And then, once satisfied, she can say, "Whose story shall I tell? What should happen? What, within the confines of what I've designed, could happen, and to whom, and with what effect?"

Perhaps that wouldn't work either; it might need to be a sort of Hegelian zig-zagging between periods of untrammelled creativity and responsible self-correction. But my instinct is that it's probably helpful to keep in mind that there are those two separate things: the way you design it, and the attitude you ask the reader to take towards it. Or, to look at it from the critic's point of view rather than the writer's, it's probably important to avoid examining and criticising the composition of the cast, for example, or the design of the social institutions, without also looking at the attitude of the text toward those facts, and vice versa.
Melissa G. at 19:51 on 2009-11-22
I think I came up with similar thoughts too. I mean, it's impossible to do everything right so I guess the author has to decide what's most important to him/her as far as what they want to say with their book. If the book is about tolerance, it's important to show diversity because if the author doesn't, the theme is undermined.

I suppose this interests me because I tend to be a character writer. I come up with characters before theme. So, in cases like mine, I guess what's important is to go back afterward and look over what you've done and if you're presenting any possible stereotypes and how to maybe turn the reader's mind away from that idea, either by tweaking a character or introducing another. And I think there are times when you ask, "Does this character need to be white/man/straight/etc?" and the answer is no, but I think there are times when the answer is yes too. So, maybe the most important thing is to ask that question whenever you make a character.

Now I might just be rambling though.
Robinson L at 03:02 on 2009-12-02

Kyra: you absolutely don't have to apologise to me
On the contrary, if Dan's account is anything to go by, my words in the conversation above were hurtful, which was far removed from my intentions, I assure you. I do apologize for having given offense.

If you consider that as light philosophy then fair enough, but I rather imagine that's a prerogative you only get as a man.
An excellent point, one I will endeavor to keep more firmly in mind.

I do not at all, however, propose to tell Cashore what she should do, in matters of writing or any other.

It's not the fact that you didn't like how many male characters there are in Graceling, it was the more the idea that you thought the themes Cashore explores and the way she explores them - which I would define broadly as 'being a woman' and 'from the perspective of a woman' as evidence that she has failed as a writer.
A position which I in no way propound.

It seems clear to me now that we have been speaking at cross-purposes for some time.

The composition of a book's main cast is absolutely a feminist issue, and a somewhat separate issue from that of discourse. However, you and Dan and others have quite satisfied me that Graceling's discourse addresses feminist issues very well indeed, and for myself I will not argue the matter of casting from a feminist perspective. In light of what has been said already, I do not consider myself qualified to assess Graveling's handling of feminist issues one way or another.

Something I should perhaps have tried to explain earlier is that casting for me is also a matter of personal taste. All else being equal, I prefer large female casts (“all else” including such matters as the female characters being well-written and not exploitively written, yes). Aside from a feminist angle (which, as I say, has now been more than aptly addressed), I can not come up with any particular reason why this should be so, other than to restate that it is what I prefer, and so I left that part unsaid—unwisely, I now realize.

It was in this light that I made my comments. I liked Graceling. I was slightly disappointed by the casting, but having seen the arguments in favor of Cashore's decisions in that regard, I accept the casting as is. I hope that in at least some of her future books, Cashore will be able to convey her feminist discourse in a way which will be congenial to—or even enhanced by—a larger female supporting cast. I think Cashore could do some great things with a large female cast, and I think I would like such a story even better.

None of which says anything at all about what Cashore should do, as it is certainly not my place to make any such statement. I merely offer my opinion on what I would like her to do, which places absolutely no obligations on her whatsoever.

As Dan points out, Kristin Cashore is not primarily writing for me or even for people like me, so my opinion counts for even less, which is fair enough. For what very little it's worth, then, I offered it. Had I known how it would be taken though, and what that would lead to, I would a) have picked my words with a lot more care or, more likely, b) not bothered entirely.
Sister Magpie at 15:57 on 2010-05-07
Hey, remember this thread? I do! I've remembered it all this time while reminding myself to pick up this book and I finally have. Just wanted to thank you for the rec and also, months after the fact, to put in my 2 cents about some issues brought up here.

I didn't find Bitterblue to be a Mary Sue. I think in my head I was expecting it, having remembered the discussion, but she really didn't come across that way to me. I guess her personality seemed to just make sense given who she was. She was a princess and was taught to be self-possessed. She had already broken through Leck's power by the time we meet her--it wasn't about seeing her mother killed, it was that she had already seen her mother hurt. Essentially, she was the child of an abusive marriage and seeing her mother hurt at the hands of her father repeatedly had opened her eyes. This was not a special power of Bitterblue's, they were careful to say. Everyone, when hurt enough by Leck, gained that power.

I do agree with the few flaws pointed out here, particularly Leck's downfall. I could think of many ways that Leck could have become the way he did given his power so I didn't think he was just evil for the sake of being evil, but we never know him and his death is almost intentionally anti-climactic.

TBH, the thing I thought was a bit weak actually was Po. I loved the guy, but that was the thing. He was just too much a fantasy for me. He made Ginny Weasley look like a character not created to be the perfect mate for the protagonist! He was still an interesting guy, but if there was a Sue in the story I'd be looking at Po far more than Bitterblue. I can't really think of a single flaw the guy had.
Dan H at 11:47 on 2010-05-10
I'm actually okay with Leck's downfall, I thought it was actually quite well thought through. Leck's power very specifically *isn't* a D&D charm spell, it's that you believe whatever he says. Which means that if he threatens you, you do actually get a narrow window of believing he's dangerous before he backtracks and says "but we're friends really".

The end of the Leck arc actually highlights some rather chilling things about Katsa - it's quite clear in the text that she "beat" Leck because she really was willing to kill a man who she believed otherwise innocent, purely to protect Po.
Wardog at 10:23 on 2010-05-11
I didn't really find Po too Mary-Sue-ish, I think because he was someone for me to want to have, rather than someone I'd necessarily want to be, if that makes sense? Mary Sue heroines are annoying because they are (meant to be) more awesome than me, but idealised lovers I enjoy very much :)

And actually I thought Po behaved like a bit of a twat when he went blind - at least, he doesn't respond to a position of new found vulnerability particularly well.
Sister Magpie at 17:20 on 2010-05-11
I'm actually okay with Leck's downfall, I thought it was actually quite well thought through. Leck's power very specifically *isn't* a D&D charm spell, it's that you believe whatever he says. Which means that if he threatens you, you do actually get a narrow window of believing he's dangerous before he backtracks and says "but we're friends really".


Oh, I bought how it happened. I was just left wishing we could have gotten to know him a bit more. We only see him for a few moments before he dies, and that's after a really chilling build up.

I didn't think he was much a twat after going blind given the circumstances. I mean, it's a huge thing to go blind, and he was a bit mopey about it but that's probably nothing compared to what a regular person losing their sight would be. Especially since he had the added factor of not being able to tell anyone for fear of revealing his Grace.

I didn't really find Po too Mary-Sue-ish, I think because he was someone for me to want to have, rather than someone I'd necessarily want to be, if that makes sense? Mary Sue heroines are annoying because they are (meant to be) more awesome than me, but idealised lovers I enjoy very much :)


Yes, I shouldn't have used that term. He's definitely not a Mary Sue but an idealized love interest, which is a different thing. But I did find it a little distracting that he was so perfect that way.
Jamie Johnston at 15:23 on 2010-12-16
'Late to the party' doesn't even begin to describe it, but hey! I have read this book now! Yay!

I really liked it. And it was interesting, having read it, to re-read this article and Dan's about it, and skimming the discussions on each. Interestingly partly because one of the things that struck me as very striking and appealing about Graceling, especially from a 'gender studies' type perspective, is something that hasn't come up much in the commentary so far.

[Slight spoilers hereafter. Not that there haven't been any already, but.]

Kat and Kyra mentioned that they particularly liked the sequence in the mountains, and I feel the same. And I think one of the reasons I found it so striking is linked to the broader question of the qualities that the book treats as heroic. I loved the way it valorizes care and survival and practicality. I think that comes through very clearly in the way the most climactic and memorable sequence — the one in the mountains — is not a massive battle but is actually an escape.

What they're doing is running away, which is something that the conventions of not only fantasy (of which I have no very deep knowledge) but genre fiction generally tend to portray as massively un-heroic. Even when an escape is heroic in fiction, the heroism is usually found in the one who self-sacrificingly stays behind to hold back the pursuers. We even had all the ingredients for that trope in Graceling, and I really thought (and feared, because I liked Po a lot) that it was going to happen. But no, the focus was on the actual escape itself, and Herclé! it was just the most heroic and awe-inspiring thing.

People have already remarked that Cashore has a women doing cool things without being all 'Look, Awesome Women' about it, and it's a similar thing with qualities and activities. Practicality and survival are interesting in terms of gender because they feature as strands in both traditional masculinity and traditional femininity, while being heavily gendered in both. Men put up shelves, women mend clothes. Men hunt animals, women seek help and shelter. The obvious 'feminist' things to do in a book would be either (1) to have a female character who is Awesome because she does the traditionally masculine things or (2) to deprecate the traditionally masculine things and have the traditionally feminine things turn out to save the day. What Graceling does is more progressive than that, it seems to me: Katsa mends clothes and makes fire and weapons, hunts animals and and makes them into meals. The fact that she does all these things makes her super-cool, and also makes the point that there's nothing inherently masculine or feminine about any of them and there's no reason why a woman can't do all of them. She fights and she escapes, and she's a hero both ways.

And the other interesting one is care. Care, of course, is a very gendered thing: so much so that it's the basis of the main strand of feminist ethics. But traditional gender-stereotyping tends to depict care-giving as something that women just spontaneously do because they want to, because women are naturally loving and caring, and therefore care is effortless for them. Which is insulting to men because it implies that men don't love or care and to women because it implies that care-giving isn't sometimes bloody hard work and often something you do even if you don't feel like it. Graceling makes care heroic, but again not in a 'Men Are Rubbish, Traditional Femininity FTW' way. Katsa isn't an especially caring person, and the care she gives to Bitterblue isn't because she's a broody mumsy woman who instinctively cuddles and protects children. She does it because she has to, because that's the position she's in (which is, of course, the sort of position that many care-givers are in but that doesn't get a lot of air-time in fiction). She does positively want to care for Po but doesn't entirely know how to and eventually has to face the fact that she can't (which again is something that a lot of care-givers have to deal with). And the care she gives to Bitterblue is at her expense and almost kills her (yet another issue that arises with care in real life but not so often in fiction).

Another related note is that the escape is different not only from the classic 'running away' but also from the classic heroic rescue. It is undeniably a rescue: Bitterblue will die if Po and Katsa don't get her to safety. But rescues are usually all about the swinging through windows on ropes and having sword-fights and stuff. They aren't so much about actually getting away and keeping the rescued person alive. Which is wierd, because that's kind of the point? But fighting is for Heroes, and the way Heroes rescue people is to fight the threat until the threat is gone. It's the fictional version of a hostage-rescue by a SWAT team. Whereas in real life rescuing someone is usually not about destroying the threat but just getting the person out of the threatening situation and not unduly endangering yourself in the process. Which is what we have in Graceling.

The escape from Monsea brings all this stuff together, the practicality and survival and care. It says 'Sewing is a useful skill and so is fishing, and they could both save your life, and there's no reason for them to be gendered like they are'. It says 'Fighting injustice is grand, but surviving cruelty and oppression is also pretty bloody heroic.' It says, 'You can't always decide who needs your care and you can't always help the people you want to help, but if you can keep someone alive and safe you've done an amazing thing.' I really liked that about it.

And that may be why I wasn't too bothered about the odd brevity of the ending, because that didn't feel to me like the climax of the story. We'd already had the climax. The rest was more like a coda and a resolution of the 'Katsa's character development' thread.
Andy G at 01:19 on 2012-03-24
I finally read this and it was just as brilliant as you said, so thanks for the recommendation.

I read Fire too. What did you think of that? I guess I thought it was good but not *as* good. The characterisation seemed weaker and there were fewer moments that made me just go 'wow'.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in October 2009