Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm Reread: Mini Reviews

Hello! This post feels a bit like deja vu. I started my very first book review blog around 2012 when I was in college. That blog held my original review for Graceling and Fire. At the time, and for some reason I can’t remember, I never got around to picking up a copy of the third book in this series, Bitterblue.

During my Kristin Cashore marathon, in anticipation for her newest addition to this series Winterkeep (expected release date January 19, 2021), I made sure to read the initial series in its entirety.

I will be doing a full length review on Winterkeep, but wanted to air out my thoughts on the other three books in more concise (if possible) mini reviews. I hope you enjoy, and please check out this series! It is one of my all time favorites, and an absolute must for fantasy lovers. This series is one I’d highly recommend for anyone trying to dip their toe into fantasy for the first time.

by Kristin Cashore

I can still vividly remember reading Graceling for the first time. While parts of the plot have become a bit fuzzy over the past 8 years, the feeling I had during and after reading this book have not faded.

Cashore set up this world with the dichotomy of good and evil. This fantasy takes place in a land governed by seven ruling entities: some are benevolent while others are malevolent. In this world certain people are inexplicably born graced, with the telltale multicolored eyes. The graced have inhuman skills, ranging from life saving to the mundane.

When we meet our hero we are immediately informed that her grace is simple: to kill others. We journey with her as she discovers if she wants to live under a king’s thumb as his weapon, or to choose her own path and decide for herself what type of asset she might be. The internal conflict to decide if she can be anything but a killer is the driving force behind all of Katsa’s decisions, including her relationships with other characters.

As a young reader (when I read this the first time in 2013) I was struck by the fact that this story didn’t end the way I would have wanted it to. The characters didn’t behave the way they would have in any other fantasy I had read thus far. Was there a happy ending? Perhaps there was for the characters, but not for me as a reader.

Graceling was the first novel that taught me that I can love a story, and disagree with the actions of the characters. It wasn’t until 8 years later during my reread that I began to fully understand the characters’ actions, and be at peace with their final decisions.

At the time this was also one of the best fantasies I had ever read. Today I believe this book can still hold its own in the genre, but there were moments when I realized a few minor downfalls to the execution of the story itself. There were a handful of climactic moments that come at you out of nowhere, and are resolved just as quickly. I wanted more time in those scenes, more suspense and anticipation, which I think is improved upon in the later books in this series.

by Kristin Cashore

The second book in the Graceling Realm takes us back in time and into a new land. While there is no mention of Katsa or Po in this novel (because they hadn’t been born yet) we meet many new characters who attempt to fill their void. 

The theme of good and evil is extremely prevalent in this novel. A daughter must come to terms with her father’s atrocities and decide if she will follow in his dark footsteps or forge a new path. All of Fire’s relationships are built on the foundational knowledge of who her father was, and who she might be as a result. As the novel expands, so does Fire’s understanding of her true self. 

Another theme began to emerge in this second novel that we saw briefly in the first. The concept of female purity and promiscuity is challenged by the day to day actions of these characters. Both Katsa and Fire are women who do not wish to become mothers (for their own various reasons) and who do not treat sex as something that is taboo. 

On the other side of the coin we watch men who take little care of the women they sleep with, and monsters who did not falter before committing rape. While this is not the case for every male character in this story, it is a theme that will play out largely in the third novel. 

This book allowed the Graceling Realm to expand into a larger universe for later stories, and helped us understand the people, creatures, and culture. Instead of humans with graces, people are born as monsters. They are beautiful, ensnaring, and sometimes have the ability to control one’s mind. 

This novel mostly felt like a character study and a way to expand our understanding of the realm at large. It also creates a really interesting contrast between two women in two different lands and time periods struggling to be seen beneath their fathers’ obsidian shadows.

by Kristin Cashore

Watching a young girl learn to become a queen is one of my favorite storylines. What I expected to be a challenging journey became increasingly heartbreaking as more and more was uncovered about her father’s inhuman past, and the power he still held over Bitterblue’s trusted advisors. 

While this series should come with a handful of trigger warnings, this book should come with it’s own caution tape. I’m not sure how much of this was my own imagination running wild while the actual descriptions on the page remained vague, but this book was rather disturbing. There’s discussion of animal mutilation and torture, using mind control to force men to rape and procreate with women who were being held as science experiments, serial killing sprees, the list honestly goes on and on. 

I don’t think the extremity of the disturbing acts listed above were unnecessarily extravagant, because they were a crucial component in completing a villainous character arc, and helped the audience understand exactly what Bitterblue was up against, trying to undo, and trying to set right. I also think Cashore did a good job of alternating between these flashbacks, and interspersing joy Bitterblue experienced with her friends or during her nightly excursions. 

The challenges Bitterblue was facing felt like we were climbing a mountain so high its peak was sheltered by clouds. Watching her unravel lie after lie and scheme after scheme and the multiple traps set by her father was frustrating, but also soothing. She never gave up, and I think because her father was so obviously evil, she became his antithesis in every way. 

If you thought that was a lot, that’s because well…it was. The Graceling Realm is honestly a fantastic series, an immersive world with truly horrible and evil characters, and children who grow into adults determined to be anything but their predecessors. I highly recommend this fantasy series to anyone who is just looking for a dark escape, knowing there is a pinprick of light at the end.

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