I want everyone to read these books, so I can talk to everybody about them! They’re fantastic feminist fantasy (#fff could we get that started?) stories. They have enough story building to keep you immersed, but not so much that you get bogged down; they have amazing character development and totally enthralling relationships; and all while leaving me feel stoked and even empowered by how the interactions play out: They’re a dream come true to feminist fantasy readers. Since I’m so in love with this series it’s a fairly long blog post so feel free to jump to: my thoughts on Graceling, my thoughts on Fire, my thoughts on Bitterblue, or tl;dr
So, it starts with Graceling which tells the story of Katsa (Graceling came out before Hunger Games so it is NOT a Katniss rip off). In Katsa’s world gracelings are people who special abilities, these graces can be anything from good tree climbing to extra strength to physic abilities. You can tell gracelings apart because they all have two different colored eyes. Katsa is and graceling with an innate ability to kill, and because of her grace her king forces her to be a thug who enforces his rule, and she hates its. To rebel she created The Council, an underground network of people committed to thwarting the evil kings who rule the Seven Kingdoms. It’s pretty awesome.
Katsa being a rebel leader is totally effing cool, but for me, it’s only the beginning of the awesomeness. The rest of the Graceling review is going to be a bunch of spoilers, so read on at your own risk. Katsa discovers what her grace is when a creepy noble man makes crude remarks and then tries to touch Katsa, so she thrusts her hand at his faceand accidentally splinters his nose bone into his brain. Because that happens other people decide her grace must be killing, and that’s how she sees herself: a murderous monster. But throughout the narrative as she tells that story to different people, and more and more of her grace is shown (she can carry a man her own size up a long flight of stairs, she can make her body sleep or wake on command, she can start fires with wet kindling) it becomes clear that her grace isn’t killing at all: it’s survival. When she defended herself as a child from a man’s unwanted attention she was seen as a monster or a killer, when in reality she is a survivor. This revelation is thrill to read, and an important message I wish more people learned.
Another thing I love about this book is the romantic relationship she develops with a prince nick named Po. Katsa isn’t looking for love and is annoyed when it finds her in Po, mainly because she doesn’t want to get married and marriage is the only option she thinks is available. Katsa doesn’t want to marry Po because no matter how much freedom he allowed her he would always be giving her the freedom, it wouldn’t just be her own. But Katsa isn’t forced to chose between love and independence, Po suggests that they can still be together without getting married. This blows Katsa mind and allows her to create a partnership with Po on her own terms. And when they start having sex her takes herbs to prevent pregnancy, so you know, it promotes birth control. It’s incredibly refreshing and exciting, and allows feminist readers to just fall in love with the characters and enjoy the love story (which feminists want too sometimes!).
Another thing I adore about these books is that Katsa notices as she travels throughout the Seven Kingdoms that women and girls do not know how to defend themselves. It’s generally assumed that men and boys will look after females they’re related to, so when women and girls are harassed or attacked on their own they have no tools to fight back with. Katsa sees this obvious problem and starts teach women and girl’s how to fight, across the Seven Kingdoms, both hand to hand and with different weapons!
The second book in the Graceling Realm series is Fire. Fire takes place in the same fantasy universe but on the other side of a very large mountain range, so they kingdoms don’t know about each other and it’s almost a different world. In this world there are not gracelings but there are monsters. Monsters exist in all species, they are exactly like their average animal counterpart except they are radiant bright colors, and they have seductive abilities. the main character of this book is named Fire, she is the last human monster, and she is named for her brilliantly bright red/orange/yellow/pink hair. Fire’s abilities allow her to sense other’s minds and with weak minded people suggest ideas and even control their actions.
(spoilers ahead, be warned) Monster abilities also make them disturbingly attractive, which in the animal kingdom makes the normal creature easy prey, but in Fire’s life puts her in danger. Fire’s monster attractiveness is a fairly spot on metaphor for gendered violence in contemporary society. Fire does everything she can to conceal her monster features, but no matter how she dresses weak minded people still flock to her. These people exhibit all types of behavior from gaping, fist fights against each other for her hand in marriage, and violence towards her. At one point of the book she’s traveling with an army across the country, and plays her violin during the nights; one day she comes back to camp to discover that a soldier smashed her violin to smithereens. She cries and blames herself her tempting him by playing it, but her friend and guard Musa assures her that is wasn’t her fault, is was his choice and his action. Fire drawing attention to herself and her instrument was not cause her someone to attack her or her belongings. Which is a theme the book returns to frequently, Fire is a supernaturally irresistible babe, and men can control control themselves around her, because that’s their responsibility.
Fire starts the book in a romantic/sexual relationship with a friend named Archer (in which she uses herbal birth controll), which she has to carefully negotiate because he has grown to be possessive of her. Throughout the story she asserts her independence in the relationship, she decides to travel multiple times despite Archer’s insistence that such things are unsafe. She aides an army in battle without telling him because she knows he would stop her. She continues to create and maintain relationships with people outside of Archer despite his jealousy. And all of these things she does that she decides are safe or worth while for her to do turn out ok, sometimes they are dangerous, sometimes she needs help, but she’s never shown as someone who should have listened to her man. She knows what she can handle and we trust her to make her own judgments. Ultimately after living a way from Archer for a few months when he comes to visit she breaks the romantic relationship with him off.
Another thing I love that Fire adds to the Graceling Realm is a femme and physically vulnerable heroine. Katsa , who is wonderful and I LOVE her, has strengths that aren’t necessarily relatable to many women: she can defend herself against anything that would do her harm. Fire doesn’t have that advantage, Fire can be hurt by people bigger and stronger then her, much like me and all other women I know. But Fire isn’t a wuss or a weakling (again, like most women I know) she has limitations, but she’s smart resourceful and knows how to use weapons. She defends herself from undesired romantic advances by stating boundaries, using her monster powers (when they can aide her), closing doors on men, and asking for help when she needs it. I am eternally enchanted by fiction stories the show different female presentations, and different ways women can be strong.
The last book in the series is Bitterblue. Bitterblue is the name of a young queen on the Garceling/Katsa side of the giant mountain range, who has no fantastic powers, and is trying to help her kingdom as they recover from a shared trauma. Her father, the ruler of the kingdom before her, had a grace that made people believe whatever he said; he would do horrible things and then make people forget them/think that they wanted them/or think that someone else had done them. So Bitterblue has a nearly impossible task of moving her kingdom forward with different groups of people having opposite ideas of how to do that, on top of shorting though her own mangled memories, and like dating and having friends and stuff.
(spoilers ahead beware) So these books subscribe to the notion that what kingdoms need are good leaders, it’s shown throughout the first two books but we’re far more deeply immersed in that idea as Bitterblue struggles to be a good leader. This won’t be problematic to everyone, but it’s one of my least favorite parts as an Anarchist. I also know many leftist don’t like children’s stories casting royalty as heroes. To quote The Coup “Tell your teacher princesses are evil / that got their money cuz they killed people.” What I enjoy about her queenly struggles is how she comes to consciousness with how privileged she is, and how many people make her castle work and thus her lifestyle work. While reading about a queen coming to understand her privilege may not be super rad to all readers, I think it’s awesome that Cashore takes the time to explain how the castle works, who the castle employees, and all the many workers it takes for these fairy tales to happen. I also think for a privileged reader coming to consciousness with Bitterblue about how fricking lucky she is to want for nothing would be a pretty important read.
Despite this story being about #RoyaltyProblems it might actually be my favorite. Just because the scope of the book is so big. Dealing with entire country healing from such travesty, every character you meet is trying to deal with their own painful past. And it’s only through the telling of the narrative everyone’s stories are peeled back and revealed. The horrible things Bitterblue’s father did hurt everyone from distant farmers, to his advisors, to his family. And the effects this harm did still have hold on the kingdom today. What I think is brilliant about this book is the journey Bitterblue must go through to cut thought the layers of deception that are drawn around her, to keep her ignorant about how bad things still are in her kingdom.
What Bitterblue ultimately learns is that people close to her in the palace were working actively not only to keep her in dark, but to kill others that would try and bring the truth of her father’s reign to light, because they are culpable. These men who were terrorized and are now broken by the former king’s rule also helped him hurt others. These men who love Bitterblue and who Bitterblue loves, were forced into doing terrible things, and now would go to any lengths to stop those truths from coming to light. It’s heart breaking and it’s complicated and it’s incredibly realistic.
But it’s not just a downer book. It’s a story about resilience and varied resistance. It’s a story about friendship, truth, and healing. It’s a story where you see the benefits of Katsa’s fight lessons as Bitterblue defends herself. It’s a story where Bitterblue is given birth control herbs by multiple women in her life before she needs them. It’s a story where Bitterblue sleeps with a boy she doesn’t love because she wants to. It’s a story where punitive responses to crimes are shown as cruel and stopped. It’s a story with rich complicated characters who you cannot judge by their first appearance. It’s also a story where I think Cashore realized that she hadn’t written any gay characters into the previous books so every single possible side character is gay. But more then anything I think it is a story about love, how it comes in a myriad of forms and can sustain us even when it hurts us.
- Women can have varied gender presentation
- Women can be strong in a myriad of ways
- Women form underground rebel groups
- Women have sex when they want, with birth control
- Women can form romantic relationships on their own terms
- Women who defend themselves aren’t monsters but survivors
- Women teach each other how to fight and defend themselves
- Men are responsible for their actions towards women
- Women can make their own decisions about what risks they are willing to take
- Men who try and control their partners should be dumped
- Privilege is real and needs to be examined and recognized
- Survivor’s stories must be told for healing to happen
- Evil is complicated and can come from people you are close to and love
Please. Dear God. Read them.