Graced with Epic-ness: Kristin Cashore’s Series Structure
In this post, I finish my examination of Kristin Cashore’s excellent Graceling Realms series. (Part one here!) The title of the post may seem a bit over-the-top, but I mean it literally: Cashore lays out her series in the style of old epics like the Iliad and Odyssey.
Instead of progressing in a linear timeline, the second book is set many years before the first, and the third, eight years after the end of the first.
Well, not argue, but let’s discuss it…
I’m usually weary of series that jump around like this—as I mentioned when discussing Phil Pullman’s Book of Dust. I like it when a series is linear and self-contained. It gives the full arc coherence and unity while allowing the reader imaginative space to frame what happened to the characters before or after in their own minds.
But I’ve read a few series lately where jumps back or forward in time work. I mentioned how Pullman pulls it off and I think it also works in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, where the protagonists of the first novel, Sabriel and Touchstone, show up in subsequent books as the parents of a new protagonist.
OR, START IN THE MIDDLE!
I think Cashore’s books provide an even better example of how to organize a non-linear series. The structure is essentially Book I: Middle, Book II: Beginning, Book III: End. This mirrors ancient epics like the Illiad and Odyssey, which used the in media res technique of starting in the middle and filling out past and future events as the story continued.
Each of Cashore’s novels has a different heroine and, like in Garth Nix’s series, the protagonist of one book can show up at a different age in a different book. Lady Fire, for instance, is in her late teens as the titular heroine of Book II, but appears in book three as an elderly woman.
In fact, in the closing chapters of Book III: Bitterblue, all three heroines are united. Queen Bitterblue is in her late teens. Katsa, the protagonist of the first novel, is in her late twenties, and as mentioned, Lady Fire is the elder of the trio. This hits on the old Maiden-Mother-Crone archetype, but there is nothing traditional about it. Cashore’s heroines are all fiercely independent, they are not related by blood, and most of them want nothing to do with having babies. All the same, they form a powerful intergenerational triad that reinvents the old trope. The books provide a twenty-first century sensibility while resonating with ancient patterns.
After finishing the Graceling Realms series in 2012, Cashore came out with a new book last autumn, Jane Unlimited. You can check out the review by my friends at The Book Wars.