I’d put Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling on the same shelf as Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series: the shelf of authors writing YA fantasy with strongly-characterised female leads who deal complexly with romance while also kicking ass.
Cashore’s generic medieval-Europe fantasy world is one in which, rarely, people are born with a Grace: a preternatural aptitude for one specific skill, like baking or navigation or fighting. Its heroine, Katsa, has a Grace for killing, which her uncle King Randa exploits mercilessly to subdue and frighten his enemies. She despises this role, and her uncle, and in recompense for the violence she’s forced to perform she sets up a Council which works in secret to move the fractious Seven Kingdoms towards peace.
Early in the novel, the Council liberates an aged member of the Lienids, the royal family of a quiet island nation, from the dungeons of a rival kingdom. There seems to be no obvious motive for capturing this inoffensive gentleman; when the Council starts investigating the kidnapping, they find links to King Leck, ruler of the seaside kingdom of Monsea, who everyone seems to think is a thoroughly decent chap and would never kidnap anyone at all. Something strange is clearly at work, giving Katsa the perfect opportunity to renounce her uncle’s control and go investigate, with the help of the handsome Lienid prince Po (not a Teletubby).
Graceling is very much Katsa’s story: Cashore is minimally interested in worldbuilding and maximally interested in how her young adult heroine starts to define herself and her priorities in response to the various scenarios the plot drops her into. One of those scenarios is close proximity to Po, who very quickly turns into her romantic interest. I really, really like how Cashore handles this central romance: Katsa doesn’t, like so many romantic heroines, fall immediately into her lover’s arms the minute mutual desire is established. Instead, she grapples with her need for independence and her unwillingness to have children in a way that feels honest and appropriate for the rudimentary social context Cashore’s sketched in (viz., a relationship between a woman and a man gives the man control over the woman; marriage necessitates children; etc.). This has the side effect of making the romance a satisfyingly slow burn, too, with a convincing emotional payoff: we’ve had plenty of time to get to know these characters and root for them!
I’m also interested in thinking about Graceling (and its sequel Fire, which I’ve also read) as a kind of primer on abusive and controlling relationships. The main threats and conflicts in these texts come from various forms of coercive control (including King Randa’s abuse of his sovereign power to force Katsa into working as his torturer-in-chief), and particularly from mind control. Po’s Grace, for example, is knowing what people are thinking about him: obviously this introduces some great tension into their romantic plotline, but it’s also something they have to work out very firm boundaries around so Katsa has the privacy and self-determination she needs. (This is another thing I love about how Cashore handles this relationship, how aware she is of the potential for abuse there is in this set-up.) Graceling‘s Big Bad exercises a much more sinister form of mind control, and as such acts as the flipside to Po and Katsa’s ultimately respectful relationship: a boundary-stomper, an ignorer of consent, in general the model of Who Not To Date.
I do not wish to imply that Graceling is perfect and without flaws: its worldbuilding, as I have said, is generic and sometimes incoherent (table forks are not a medieval technology! they didn’t appear in northern Europe until the eighteenth century!); all of its characters are high-ranking, privileged members of the nobility; and although Katsa is strongly and unusually characterised I wouldn’t exactly call her complex.
I do, however, think this is an incredibly valuable book to give a young adult: I would have been glad to have read it as a teen, just as I am glad to have read Garth Nix’s Sabriel and Lirael and Abhorsen. It’s important to have female characters like Katsa: young women who have adventures and romances while at the same time working out anxieties around identity, family, sex, agency and their particular place in the world. And it’s important for YA novels like this to model what good and bad relationships look like and how to set healthy boundaries. I haven’t read Bitterblue, the final novel in the series, yet; I definitely will.