Graceling, the first novel of Kristin Cashore, is a young adult fantasy told from the point of view of eighteen year old Katsa, a Graceling. In the world of Katsa, most people are average humans. A small portion of the population is “Graced” with special skills, each unique to the individual. These individuals are distinguishable by their heterochromatic eyes. Katsa has grown up trained as an assassin and enforcer for her uncle, the kind of the Middluns, and her blunt and hard nature informs the telling of Graceling not just in the thoughts expressed by Katsa directly but also in how Katsa chooses to describe the world around her. The world building and character development in Graceling, as told by Katsa, generally focus on action or reflection. Katsa’s observations about her surroundings are concrete in how they fix her in her world but do not include detail that the reader may be interested in but might not be true to how the character would reflect on a retelling. Alternatively, she is careful to recount her thoughts and feelings during particular times. It is through these actions and reflections of Katsa that Cashore tells the story.
It becomes evident immediately during the opening of the story that the character recounting it is very physical. She is tuned in to her body’s movement through her environment rather than the visual, auditory or olfactory cues. The reader is dragged along with her as she moves through a dungeon. Every piece of information conveyed by Katsa directly pertains to her actions.
In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind. One that had so far proven correct, as Oll’s maps tended to do. Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went. Turning when it was time to turn; stopping finally before an opening that should contain a stairway leading down. She crouched and felt forward with her hands. There was a stone step, damp and slippery with moss, and another one below it.
Cashire, Graceling, page 3.
The novel opens with Katsa slinking through a dungeon, but Cashire provides no context to Katsa’s journey and very little physical description. The reader knows its dark and that Katsa has to feel her way along the walls and the stairs. The sensory details provided are the bare minimum required for us to understand her spatial position to her objective. On top of being minimal, the detail is also presented in furtherance of Katsa’s actions rather than to ground us in her world.
If Katsa isn’t moving us with her body, she’s paraphrasing her retelling and explaining why certain actions are required to get her from point A to point B.
Most of the guards gave her no trouble. If she could sneak up on them, or if they were crowded in small groups, they never knew what hit them. The castle guard was a bit more complicated, because five guards defended his office. She swirled through the lot of them, kicking and kneeing and hitting, and the castle guard jumped up from his guardhouse desk, burst through the door, and ran into the fray.
Cashore, Graceling, page 5.
Katsa’s rapid-fire movement through masses of guards during this opening chapter establishes her personality as someone at ease in her own body, comfortable with violence and hurting people and as someone resilient and hard to injure. Cashore is able to ground us strongly in Katsa’s head, but no details are presented about where the castle guard is in relation to her escape and what path she took to get there. The action is abridged, unimportant in itself except to establish Katsa as a character capable of taking down an entire castle guard.
In sharp contrast to the very physical scenes of Katsa moving through her world, propelled forward by her physical actions, Cashore also takes us into Katsa’s head for reflection. These moments of reflections are similarly recounted directly by Katsa and often express her internal struggle with her sense of self. Having been raised a physical being, a killing machine, she struggles with the idea that she’s lacking in intelligence, empathy, and a rich emotional life. Just the fact that she struggles with this worries paints a picture of a young woman of empathy, but these thoughts, told in the same matter-of-fact voice as the recounted actions, show us Katsa’s interior and how it conflicts with her exterior
Katsa picked up her knife and fork, cut into her mutton, and thought about that. She knew her nature. She would recognize it if she came face-to-face with it. It would be a blue-eyed, green-eyed monster, wolflike and snarling. A vicious beast that struck out at friends in uncontrollable anger, a killer that offered itself as the vessel of the king’s fury.
But then, it was a strange monster, for beneath its exterior it was frightened and sickened by its own violence. It chastised itself for its savagery. And sometimes it had no heart for violence and rebelled against it utterly.
A monster that refused, sometimes, to behave like a monster. When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?
Cashore, Graceling, page 136-37.
Even as Katsa refers to her nature as something outside herself, a monster exterior to her, she reflects on this monster as part of her. She is not willing to tell us directly that she is afraid of her own nature, but she is willing to question the definition of this nature. Again, the physical details of her surroundings are minimal and are only there to support Katsa’s internal struggle. The physical representation of Katsa’s interior mirrors her perceptions of herself moving through physical space, but Cashore still has her reflect on this interior, and this simple act of questioning builds Katsa as more than just the monster she describes.
Graceling is has its strengths and weaknesses, but Cashore uses Katsa’s narrow point of view to build a character that we understand immediately on a physical, surface level and then come to know more deeply through her reflection on these traits. This allows Cashore to build Katsa from the outside in while relying on very little in the way of traditional worldbuilding techniques.