Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue

Anthony Weber —  June 5, 2012 — 9 Comments
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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.

Plot Summary

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.

Awards

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.

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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).

Do you think the author intended to point people to Christ?  Not that I can tell. I’ve  read a number of author interviews, and religion does not appear to be on the radar.

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 Firebut 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.

(For a more detailed review of Graceling and Bitterblue, click on the links).

Anthony Weber

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Anthony graduated from Cedarville University in 1995 with a degree in English Education, and from Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary in Newburgh, Indiana in 2004 with a Master's Degree in Theology and Philosophy. Anthony is a husband and father of three, an author ("Learning to Jump Again"), high school and college teacher, pastor, blogger (tcapologetics.org, empiresandmangers.blogspot.com), and co-founder of etcetera, a "street-level philosophy group" in Traverse City, Michigan.
  • http://jackjohnsonmusic.net/song/Let-It-Be-Sung/4959423 Let It Be Sung

    One lucky person will win a copy of Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore. (In the interest of full disclosure, Graceling and Bitterblue are brand new and Fire is slightly used, read twice.

    • Whisperinthewoods

      “Let It Be Sung” who are you? I’d love those copies!

  • Kim

    I just finished Graceling, per your recommendation, and I LOVED it.  For so many reasons, but at the top of the list, the writing is superb.  Excellent, excellent.  I hold this up as an example of the epitome of excellence in YA writing—craft and story.  I particularly liked that Katsa was a strong, independent woman.  Certainly a role model in that. As well as her concern for other girls and their ability to take care of themselves and not rely on the men in their lives to protect them.   Also, that her love interest was respectful and didn’t attempt to “tame” her was worthy of a thumbs up.  This is in great contrast to Twilight, which, well… ick.  Katsa and Po both made sacrifices for what was “right” in the face of losing each other and/or their own lives.  Beautiful!  I give it two thumbs, five stars, and every medal I have the authority to give. 

  • Kim

    BTW- I intended to go right out and buy copies of my own.  I see an offer below…  

  • Kim

    After reading your other blog post (I’m replying here because apparently I’m technologically inept and can’t figure out how to get notifications of your response if I post on the other one…) I have a comment regarding the section on “What makes me uncomfortable” ending in these lines: Are they loyal, kind, and self-sacrificial? Yes, and nobly so. But you can’t be a true lover and still belong to yourself.  Po and Katsa want to bare skin and soul without commitment and consequence; they want to be “one” without undergoing that final,risky, crucial step of servanthood and obligation.That’s not a helpful message to send in a society that is reaping a very bleak harvest from irresponsibility and promiscuity.

    I don’t disagree necessarily with your sentiment, but perhaps have a different interpretation of what transpired between them, specifically as it relates to their world and the real world of the teens reading this book.  (And I must divulge that I am a 40-something woman, therefore, my perspective comes from such.) I believe Ms. Cashore was portraying two very responsible people who were trying to balance many obligations and find love amid it all. A clear reflection of society today where women have their own careers and  interests and child-rearing, relationship issues, are shared between husband and wife.  The issue at hand is, in the real world today, what does the “commitment” of marriage look like?  It’s a legal paper that can easily  be re-filed as divorce. I know so many women who want that “commitment” of marriage to feel “good” about themselves and the relationship.  That is somehow their gauge of self worth or how they can “know” the man loves them.  It is, frankly, quite pathetic, but a reflection of the times (think Twilight)  We’ve diminished marriage down to this. An affirmation of self worth for women with low self esteem.

    Katsa and Po have an incredibly deep understanding of what the commitment is and don’t take it lightly.  They understand that no paper, or words of some priest, can create that commitment. It must come from within.  And I think THAT is an important message for the teens of our time. 

    I recognize that you have an issue with the decision to have sex and the use of birth control in this context, and that is, in my opinion, a second point that is not all that relevant to this one other than your comment, above, about a society of irresponsibility and promiscuity.  I would argue that they were neither irresponsible (they used birth control) nor promiscuous. They did have commitment to each other, consummated by the act, it just wasn’t your idea of the “ultimate” commitment. Their’s was mature, well thought out, not taken lightly, and certainly not engaged in for any of the reasons that are so prevalent in our society .  You know them, I dont’ need to list.

    • Anthonyweber

      Kim, I think we talked through this pretty successfully Thursday night, but I’ll post here in the off chance someone else is reading this :)  They you can clarify if I missed something important from our conversation.
      First, a quote from you that I really like: “I know so many women who want that “commitment” of marriage to feel “good” about themselves and the relationship.  That is somehow their gauge of self worth or how they can “know” the man loves them.  It is, frankly, quite pathetic, but a reflection of the times (think Twilight)  We’ve diminished marriage down to this. An affirmation of self worth for women with low self esteem.”    Yeah, that’s not what we are shooting for in marriage. I feel like that vibe came across in Bitterblue, not in relation to marriage, but in relation to sex in general.  I’ll be interested to hear what you think after you’ve read it.  (My review is already posted, but it has spoilers. You have been warned :) )You also said, “They understand that no paper, or words of some priest, can create that commitment. It must come from within.  And I think THAT is an important message for the teens of our time. ”  There is a sense in which I agree.  People increasingly shy away from anything that requires commitment, and a story which says you must invest in someone (poker analogy – “I’m all in”) sends a message that needs to be heard.   My Christian perspective would say that the inner and outer commitments should go hand-in-hand.  The official binding of the outer commitment (the ceremony and paper) without an genuine inner commitment is a bad gig.   But an inner commitment without the outer commitment lacks an important element as well.     I used to coach basketball, so if I may revert to an analogy that I hope is close to what I am trying to say.  If a kid came out for the team and joined it, but was not fully invested, he would either quit or eventually ride the bench, because he lacked the drive to practice hard, keep his grades up, and want to contribute to the team.  If his heart wasn’t in it, it always showed.  On the other hand, I had players who told  me how much the loved basketball, but they wouldn’t commit – they would miss practices, show up without their uniform, break team rules….  Eventually they too would drop out of the program.       In order to succeed their inner loves and outer commitments needed to match up.     You noted that Katsa and Po had a deep understanding of commitment.  I think you’re right – they do.  What frustrated me about the story was that, because they understood it, neither one went “all in.”  I understand how that resonates in our culture – it reflects the unfortunate reality of what most people see about marriage and the family.  I just wish there were a way to simultaneously acknowledge the reality of our experiences while reminding us that, while good and noble ideals can be broken, that does not mean they should not be pursued. (Bitterblue does give some hopeful hints  at the end).     

      • Whisperinthewoods

        Anthony, I agree. I think you successfully summed up our conversation.  I dont’ know the answer.  It’s a big, complicated mess isn’t it?

        • Anthonyweber

          Yes, it is :)

  • Kimberli

    Anthony, I forgot to mention. I also read Divergent, per your suggestion.  Have you posted a review of that story.  I’d be interested in your impressions of it as well