The Writer's View - Graceling by Kristin Cashore

From Goodreads: In a world where people born with an extreme skill - called a Grace - are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing and torturing anyone who displeases him.

When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.

She never expects to become Po's friend.

She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace - or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away...a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

The Writer's View

I bought this book on audio. The first three hours of the book (3 out of 12) were very, very slow. If I hadn't been stuck in the car, I'm not sure I would have kept going. But I'm really glad I did, because I really ended up loving this story. It turned out to be a very unusual, very engaging read. Thanks to my buddy Cathy at Abnormally Paranormal for the recommendation!

Flashbacks that slow down the beginning of a novel

What nearly killed this novel for me were the massive flashbacks and info dumps in the beginning of the novel. I understand why the author used them (worldbuilding and establishing Katsa's difficult childhood as the basis for her character) but they were done in such a way that the beginning really dragged. I was impatient for the story to get underway.

I recently wrote about Anna Dressed in Blood, where flashbacks at the beginning actually enhance the beginning of the novel. I think the main difference between these two books is 1) the flashbacks in Anna Dressed in Blood were shorter, and 2) the beginning of Anna Dressed in Blood was a bit boring, so the flashbacks added some nice spice.
In Graceling, the novel opens with a great action scene and introduces the love interest. It was such a strong opening that I just wanted it to keep going.

It was interesting to me that the same technique worked so differently in two different books. What I've learned is that the type of opening in a novel really determines whether or not flashbacks will enhance it or slow it down.

Creating tension with the environment

Hands down, my favorite part of this book is Katsa's escape over a snowy mountain pass. This is not a normal escape sequence. There are no bad guys chasing them, because the bad guys aren't stupid enough to venture up the mountain. It's Katsa vs the elements: extreme cold, lack of food, lack of shelter, a young child to keep alive, animal predators, fear of frostbite, and the extreme mountain pass itself. I was completely riveted by this part of the book. I was so impressed by the tension generated by the danger and high stakes of Katsa's environment. I've never read anything quite like it. I'm going to keep this technique in the back of my mind for future writing projects. :)