Graceling’s most important theme is the interplay between power and corruption. Katsa is in many ways the most powerful character in the book, but at the beginning of the story corruption seems to have beaten her. She is not defined by her extraordinary ability to survive but by her extraordinary ability to kill. She has brutalized so many people that she has lost sense of her own humanity. As the novel progresses, Katsa regains her humanity through kindness and love.
The kings in the book are all, at least to some extent, corrupted by power. King Leck, the worst of them, is naturally cruel. His Grace, which gives him the ability to control other people, magnifies the effects of his natural cruelty. He uses his Grace to take control of an entire kingdom and make its people suffer while convincing them that he is a benevolent leader.
King Randa, in contrast to Leck, does not enjoy cruelty for cruelty’s sake. He is only a bully who has inherited a position of power. He enjoys his power and tries to expand it, using every tool at his disposal to do so—including human tools like Katsa.
Even good leaders in Graceling struggle with the temptation toward corruption. This is why Po’s mother and grandfather make Po promise to keep his mind-reading talent secret from the rest of his family. When Po explains this promise to Katsa, he says his secret protects him from his father, King Ror: “I would have been too useful to him. He couldn’t have resisted using me—he simply couldn’t.” King Ror cannot be trusted to choose the best interests of his own family over the needs of his kingship.
Graceling is not all about corruption, however; it is also a novel of redemption. Katsa’s transformation shows that it is possible to wield power wisely—if a person is willing to make the choice to do so. From the beginning, Katsa wants to be a force for good; she only acts like a monster because she is under Randa’s control. As soon as Po helps her to understand that she has a choice about how to live her life, she breaks away from the king and begins the process of redefining herself as a protector and a survivor rather than a killer.
Social perception plays a major role in Katsa’s transformation. When she spends all her time around people who despise and ostracize her, she acts like the monster people believe her to be. After she chooses to change her life, she removes herself from the social environment of Randa’s court and spends her time...
(The entire section is 1032 words.)