Graceling starts out with this action sequence where graced Katsa has infiltrated another Kingdom's dungeon to un-kidnap an aging royal. The pace is clipped and energizing, you get an idea of how powerful Katsa is. She is graced with the ability to kill or maim instantly. And she's been used for years as her King Uncle's dog, let out when he needed to send a violent message or punish someone. Her Uncle, King Randa, rules by invoking fear and has kept Katsa loyal by playing against her self-esteem; she thinks of herself as nothing but a killer. Her grace is worth nothing more than inflicting pain and fear.
There's a long passage near the beginning of the book about how the world in Graceling is set up. The land is broken into 7 ruling Kingdoms, each with a King. Some Kings are passive and peaceful, some war-mongering. I was a little confused by the description at the start; I couldn't get my mind around the information bomb, knowing short descriptions of each King and kingdom. As it turns out through the story, only a few characters seem the most important. But I was initially worried that I was going to miss something if I couldn't retain all this information. And I worried because there was no Cast list at the start to help me with the characters.
There's also a cool map at the opening of Graceling. I haven't been able to find it online, or I would have posted a link. I love maps at the beginning of books.
About 100 pages into the book I seriously wondered what the overall story was going to be. It srated with a bang and then there was a lot of dialogue and intrigue. Farther in, I settled into Graceling as a romance, foremost. I knew that romance would be a theme within the book but had no idea that it is pretty much what makes up Graceling. The other strong element is Katsa and her search to know her Grace better, to know herself and what type of life she wants to lead, and if there is room for a significant other.
Graceling also reminded me of The Lord of the Rings because it is a travel-log, finding-growth-on-the-road story. Most of the story is Katsa and Po on the move. The land is barren sometimes, hard to cross, and always a matter of survival. There was a lot of walking in LOTR, and then sudden crash-bang action. Same here.
The relationship between Katsa and Po is pretty awesome. It has a slow development, but never seems falsely written. Ever. You'll get angry at Katsa for being a bonehead about her feelings, but it's because she's had a violent and loveless past. She just doesn't know how to take Po and his attentions. Po is a total babe, too; sweet and soulful with a bit of mischief. One of the coolest things about Graceling is that contraceptives are discussed, and there is a powerful women-taking-control-of-their-own-choices theme. Katsa fights and lives like a man and Po steps back in awe. It was a cool dynamic to their relationship.
It;s funny, I was just skimming through the book looking for quotable passages, but much of the punchy dialogue and tension between the two is built up over many pages. The relationship between them is a total build-up, so you have to know what's come before to get their conversations.
One or two qualms? I could have used a bit more plot. Just a bit. Like, more intrigue with the Council that Katsa formed to do good deeds in the land. That's a very cool idea but it seems like it was abandoned. Also, the end taking-care-of-the-bad-guy was a little too perfunctory for his character. I needed more scenes about him, his motives. I wasn't sufficiently chilled by this character who was supposed to be a pretty terrible person.
Katsa's understanding of her Grace is done really well. Actually, the whole Grace notion is written and imagined very well. Graces are the element of magical realism within a pretty familiar world, it's the only thing that makes this story "fantasy". Katsa's understanding, as she relates to Po's Grace, expands and she develops this wider sense of herself and the true use of her Grace in the world.
Fire by Kristin Cashore is a companion novel, out in October. It has an entirely new cast of characters but I believe Katsa plays a cameo part.
You may also want to read: