For a debut novel, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (2008) attracted more than the average amount of critical attention. Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal both named Graceling one of the Best Books of 2008, and Booklist chose it as a Top Ten First Novel of the Year. Graceling won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for children’s literature and the Southern Indie Bestseller Award for young adult fiction. The novel was short-listed for several other honors as well.
Above all, critics praise Graceling for being fun, with a unique premise and an interesting plot. They point out Cashore’s deft mixture of strong characters, fast-paced adventure, and realistic romance. A few critics have mentioned that the author's fantasy world contains some inconsistencies, but for the most part it holds up well under scrutiny.
Many critics have said that Graceling is a welcome addition to a market that too often depicts girls as weak or dependent on men. They praise Cashore’s choices to maintain Katsa’s individuality within her romantic relationship and to depict strength that transcends physical weakness in Bitterblue’s character. According to The New York Times Book Review:
[Katsa] overturns every biological reality and cultural stereotype of feminine weakness....She is the girl’s dream of female power unloosed.
This comment that Katsa is “a girl’s dream” is apt, considering that Cashore says her novel grew from her own daydreams about a girl with extraordinary powers.
Graceling has also received attention for its natural appeal to teenage readers, achieved mainly through the presentation of themes that are important to the act of growing up. An article in Kirkus Reviews comments that the novel is uniquely suited to teen readers:
Katsa is an ideal adolescent heroine, simultaneously confident of her strengths yet unsure of her place in the world.
Many teen readers can identify with Katsa’s transformation, which is essentially an act of rejecting the role others have given her and replacing it with a role she chooses for herself.
Other critics note that Graceling does a remarkable job of pointing out how, particularly among teens, great talents have an odd capacity to set people apart. Katie Roiphe of The New York Times Book Review developed this idea:
Cashore plays with the idea of awkwardness, how at a certain age gifts and talents are burdens, how they make it impossible to feel comfortable in the world.
Roiphe went on to say that Cashore’s story is a fairly realistic depiction of teenage concerns dropped into a setting of royalty, magic, and adventure.