First things first: though this series was listed on Buzzfeed’s 15 Book Series to Read if you Enjoyed The Hunger Games list, the Graceling Realm series is not like The Hunger Games at all really. While it follows a series of female protagonists (one of who is unfriendly, serious, and somewhat Katniss-like… even in name), the Graceling Realm series does not take place in a dystopian society like The Hunger Games does. Kind of like the A Song of Ice and Fire series (which if you haven’t yet read, you totally should read immediately!!), the Graceling Realm series takes place in an entirely made up world – though eerily reminiscent of our own. It even has Seven Kingdoms, much like A Song of Ice and Fire does.
This series deals with everything from sex and young love to tyranny (with somewhat Machiavellian ideals), and I really think it’s perfect for readers in the 15 – 19 age group.
The first novel in the series, Graceling, centers around Katsa – a young woman gifted at birth with the “grace” of killing. In the Graceling Realm series world, graces are special powers or skills which range from ordinary (like cooking, for instance) to extraordinary (like mind reading). Gracelings – those who have graces – are born with their graces and can be identified by their mismatched and often uniquely-colored eyes. In Katsa’s part of the Seven Kingdoms, the Middluns, all Gracelings are the property of Katsa’s uncle, the king. Thus, Katsa is used as a weapon / hired-but-not-paid killer by her uncle against those who disobey him… or even just annoy him. As her own form of rebellion, Katsa has formed a secret alliance called The Council, which has a goal of helping those who cannot help themselves and protecting the people from their corrupt rulers across the Seven Kingdoms.
While on a Council mission to rescue the father of the king of one of the other kingdoms, Lienid, who has been mysteriously abducted, Katsa meets Po, a fellow Graceling. Po is seemingly graced with fighting… and is the youngest son of the Lienid king. As Po and Katsa develop their friendship and become closer, he helps her rebel against her villainous uncle, the king, and she helps him protect his family… and learn the truth of the abduction of his grandfather.
Sexuality, self-discovery, tyranny, and trust are all major themes in Graceling. The first installment of the three novels, Graceling jumps right in to the Graceling Realm world and allows the reader to become immersed in the story.
In Fire, we travel back a bit in time and to a land entirely separated from the Seven Kingdoms called The Dells. In this land, there are no Gracelings – only monsters.
These monsters are not monsters as we know them though (like in Monsters Inc.): in The Dells, monsters are impossibly beautiful creatures (humans and animals alike) that can entrance others with their colors and beauty… and control others’ minds.
Lady Fire, the protagonist of Fire, is the last human monster alive. Her father, a now-deceased monster, had used his powers to manipulate The Dells’ former king and throw The Dells into chaos, ruin, and altogether anarchy. When we join the story, Fire’s father and the king are long dead, and the kingdom has now fallen to the king’s sons – the new king, Nash, and his brother, Brigan – to restore.
The story of Fire is one which centers around the ideas of dealing with cruelty and prejudice, testing one’s limits and control, and coming to terms with one’s identity and sexuality. Hatred and jealousy, vengeance and honor – all themes prevalent in the second installment of the Graceling Realm series.
Now, back to the Seven Kingdoms. It is eight years after the end of Graceling, and Po’s cousin, Bitterblue, is now the Queen of Monsea – a land that had been thrown into chaos and ruin by her Graceling father, the now-deceased King Leck, and his mind-altering abilities. The parallels between Monsea and The Dells are obvious: both lands thrown to tyranny by the sins of the fathers, and desperately trying to be repaired by the children.
While Graceling and Fire are centered around grappling with one’s immense physical and mental power, Bitterblue is very clearly centered around the idea of truth; the search for truth in a web of lies. And the first line of the novel makes that quite plain: “Queen Bitterblue never meant to tell so many people so many lies” (Bitterblue, Kristin Cashore). Not only is Bitterblue struggling through here father’s fog of lies and secrets: she’s struggling through her own lies and secrets. As Queen of a country on the rebound from ruin, Bitterblue grapples with finding out who to trust, and how much to trust them. As in the other novels, sexuality plays a key role in Bitterblue – as do the concepts of dealing with birthright and figuring out one’s self-identity.
Kristin Cashore’s three novels with make up the Graceling Realm series don’t form a conventional trilogy in the way that – for instance – The Hunger Games do. Instead, the novels center around similar and interlocking events that take place over a 50-year span. Though the events of Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue are not sequential, they do weave together to create an incredibly imaginative story – and a good read too.
Have you read the Graceling Realm series? What other Hunger Games-like books have you read?