The Cultural Gutter

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Magic vs. Superpowers

James Schellenberg
Posted August 13, 2009

graceling-small.jpgLast time around (An Absurdly Low Number of Books), I was worried because I hadn’t read many books this year. In my search for explanations, I might have missed a key one: maybe I was getting bogged down by reading crappy books! Or, restated: it was too long since I had a book that I couldn’t put down.

Enter Graceling by Kristin Cashore.


When I starting reading Graceling, I thought to myself, “This book seems alright,” but by the end, I was a white-knuckle reader. I kept looking at the pages remaining and wondering how the heck Cashore was going to wrap everything up. In the last chapter, there was a huge development (I hesitate to say twist), one that fit in organically with the preceding plot events and made sense in terms of character, and when that one was resolved too, I was totally wrung out emotionally. A fast-paced story, characterization that convinces, and neat world-building, all in one package.

Plus a satisfying ending – how’s that for a novelty!

To phrase it another way, Graceling is like Turner’s Attolia series, but with the writing cranked down
one notch and the action cranked up one notch. In other words, the
writing is a little less elegant, but the reader is compensated by a
plot that’s more grab-you-by-the-throat in nature.

The protagonist is a young woman named Katsa, living in one of the seven kingdoms of her world, and she is one of the rare people who has a “Grace” – a power of some kind. Her Grace, as it appears at the start of the book, is the ability to kill. If she’s in a battle of some kind, she will always be alive and her opponents will always be dead or injured. It’s not much of a surprise that this is a really miserable power for any thinking, feeling person.

She has some adventures, she gets into huge scrapes because of her active conscience, and the twists and turns follow logically from the world, the Graces, and the people who live in that world and possess those Graces.

After reading Graceling, and recovering from being so wrung out, I thought about the magic system a bit and started to wonder: are we talking about magic here or superpowers?

graceling-big.jpgNow I’m not sure how much of a difference there is between the two, apart from pretty much everything that ordinarily surrounds them in a story! But I see magic as something indefinable and strange, whereas superpowers can be dissected. Tolkien never explains how Gandalf got his powers, and not even really what his powers are; in my admittedly less-than-extensive knowledge of comic book-based storylines, the opposite seems true (ok, I admit it, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine on a recent airplane trip, and the idea of transplanting all of the X-Men’s varied powers into one individual stuck in my mind). Contrarily, there has definitely been a trend in fantasy books lately where the magic of the world in question is codified, explained, systematized, etc. See the books of Brandon Sanderson for the clearest example of this.

Either magic or superpower, the Graces require a huge amount of “great power, great responsibility” style jibber-jabber, and the nature of the antagonist (who seems like a supervillain to me) clicks in tightly with this theme as well. The supervillain’s power actually makes sense in context (and see the link at the end about Cashore’s next book – even Cashore’s description of it fills a huge plot hole). All kids who are Graced are sent to the service of the kingdom before they become too powerful. As is displayed in Katsa’s life, it takes an enormous amount of effort for her to break free of her duty, in this case to a monarch acting in bad faith. In this way, most of the superpowered kids running around are socialized into “productive” members of society. The supervillain gets around this by the expedient of having a Grace that defeats any attempts at socialization or control.

This kind of theorizing aside, I admired Cashore’s work here because it seemed like she instinctively knew what to do with the material. At the most basic level, she uses it to supply a very memorable and shocking scene late in the book: there’s an unexpected showdown between Katsa and the supervillain. Because we’ve already seen the (seemingly) invincible nature of his powers, there really doesn’t seem to be a way out for her!

Like all proper heroes or heroines, she escapes of course, but that whole sequence – surprise, despair, struggle, freedom – gave me a better reading moment than I’d had in a while.

I recommend taking a look at Cashore’s blog, which is a bit of a laugh
- it’s definitely on the informal side of the spectrum of authors’
blogs.

In other news, I’m looking forward to Cashore’s next book, based on its premise (spoiler warning).

Comments

7 Responses to “Magic vs. Superpowers”

  1. Chris Szego
    August 18th, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    But what about the odd Graces? The ones about being able to whistle anything? Or the one about being able to climb trees faster than anyone else? I wonder if those have superpower equivalents. ie: Transpodude, who would always have exact change for the bus, no matter where he was in the world.

  2. Carol Borden
    August 19th, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    those seem like the kind of superpowers that mutants who don’t make the x-men have. you know, the ones who end up joining the brotherhood of evil mutants or living in the sewer.
    i poked around a little bit and found this:
    “Watching X-Men II when it came out set me to wondering about this – there’s a kid at Xavier’s school that only displays two abilities – he doesn’t sleep, and he can change the TV channel by blinking.”

  3. Chris Szego
    August 19th, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    Tree climbing and whistling are actual Graces in the book. Well, they don’t really figure, but they’re mentioned. Along with somewhat more useful graces of being able to swim really fast, and hit anything you shoot at.
    James, Cashore’s FIRE was excellent. Different in many ways, because the main character was quite different from Katsa, but excellent.

  4. Carol Borden
    August 19th, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    yeah, i was trying to think of cognates and the cognates i can think of would end up being marvel mutants and then of those, it’s the misfit mutants. the problem is that i am way more interested in those kinds of mutations/abilities than the writers usually are.

  5. Chuck
    August 20th, 2009 @ 2:51 am

    Ahaaaaaaaah — I see what’s going on. Kristin Cashore couldn’t get the comic book companies to publish her story…
    “…too much like X-Men based in a McEurope swords-and-sorcery fantasy setting.”
    Or however they do the rejection letters at DC and Marvel, etc.
    So she turned her failed comic book into a novel.
    Yep.
    Now I’ll know how to read the rest of it. (Already had it checked out from the library.)

  6. Willard
    August 23rd, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    This book sounds interesting and I’m definitely gonna check it out.
    The idea of everybody having a power ( magical in this case) was used quite effectively in “A Spell for Chamelion” by Piers Anthony, which was the start of his Xanth series. The series isn’t everybody’s cup of tea since it has a lot of silliness and puns in it.
    In a more recent series “The Codex Alera” by Jim Butcher many people have control of lesser or greater “furies”, elemental spirits with various abilities.
    -Willard

  7. James Schellenberg
    September 1st, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!
    Not sure if this one would have worked as a comic book. Part of the joy of Graceling is coming face to face with a very effective sort of supervillain in a high fantasy setting. Like if Sauron and his motivations actually made sense in Tolkien :)
    (Along those lines, I’ll be writing up some thoughts about a new writer named Brent Weeks in my next piece – some interesting parallels between Cashore’s book and Weeks’).

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