To help us better understand the stories, worldviews, and messages shaping today’s youth, here is a review of a trending book series effecting a primarily YA audience. The fact that they are trending does not necessarily make them good, but it does make them important.
The highly acclaimed stories of Kristin Cashore (Fire, Graceling, and Bitterblue) unfold in a world where certain people are born with Graces, gifts that give them a supernatural power. Every Grace is a mixed blessing; the recipients ‘unique strength becomes their undoing. The kings claim those with the greatest Graces and forces them into servitude. Those whose Graces are too ordinary to be of use are sent back home to live on the margins of society. Graceling, the first book in the series, chronicles the life of Katsa, who is gifted with a fighting Grace. Fire, the second book, is a sort-of prequel that fills in the history behind Graceling. In the third book, Bitterblue tries to fix a kingdom previous ruled by her father, a cruel and evil man with the Grace of deception.
Among other awards, Fire won the ALA Best Book for Young Adults 2010, Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Books of 2009, Washington Post Best Kid’s Book of The Year, and the School Library Journal Best Books of 2009.
Among even more awards, Graceling won the ALA Best Book for Young Adults, finalist for both the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy , the Indies Choice Book Awards, Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year 2008, School Library Journal Best Books of 2008, Booklist 2008 Top Ten First Novels for Youth, A Booklist’s Editor’s Choice for 2008, Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and the 2012 California Young Reader Medal.
Bitterblue has only been out 5 weeks; the reviews are stellar, and I’m sure awards will be forthcoming.
Is is good – was it crafted well? The writing is exceptionally good. Kristin Cashore spends years writing and rewriting her manuscripts, with excellent results. These books have the potential of enduring the test of time.
Is it true – does it reflect the world as it is? Ms. Kashore provides a cause and effect world that usually draws us toward good and pushes us away from evil. I look for entertainment that makes my emotional reaction to a situation match how my emotions ought to be in reality. Most of the time, Ms. Kashore accomplishes this.
Is it noble – does it make the reader want to be a better person? Yes, but not everything about the books led directly to this (see the last section of this review).
If not, did the author end up telling a story that reflected the Christian view of the world nevertheless? In some ways, yes. Though no religion of any kind is present, the world of Graces does not seem to be a world of sheer materialism. In many ways it reflects what C.S. Lewis called the “tao”: “What is common to them all . . . is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” There are many elements that reflect a fairly universal set of moral ideals. The world is broken; people long to be saved. I hesitate to draw too direct of a Christian connection.
Are there ways in which a Christian might begin a conversation about this book/movie that could end up pointing to our worldview? “In Bitterblue, King Lek has a Grace of convincing people to believe lies. I wonder if there will be a character in the next book who has the Grace of convincing people to believe the truth? That would be a dangerous book to write, because then everything would have to be objectively true. Has that ever been done?”
Mark Driscoll talks about entertainment in terms of “receive, reject, or redeem.” Into what categories does this series belong?
Well, there are elements in these stories which you can’t just receive. The casual and positive way in which premarital sex and homosexuality are embedded in the story can’t be minimized. I have not yet read Fire, but if the summary I read is correct, the book contains more troubling elements than the other two. I’m surprised these books have won so many awards as children’s literature – not because they don’t deserve recognition for their literary excellence, but because readers need some maturity to filter certain situations. While the sexual situations are minor footnotes in the lives of the characters, the real world counterpart is not.
However, there is plenty here to redeem. Unlike Twilight, I did not walk away hoping no one in real life would ever act like anyone in the story. Like the Hunger Games, there was something about the epic nature and story arc that was ennobling. Heroism, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and truth take center stage in these books, and that’s worth something in today’s world.