Ready for another book confession? Here it is: I don't like fantasy books. I have read and enjoyed about ten fantasy books in my entire life, seven of them start with the words "Harry Potter and the..." and the last three are "His Dark Materials." That's considered fantasy, right? Yeah, it has bears that talk for no scientific reason; it's fantasy.
Why don't I like fantasy? I haven't a clue. But every time I've tried to pick one up (outside of the aforementioned ten - and I picked up Harry Potter under duress), I get bored or frustrated and don't finish it.
So I'm surprised by how much I liked Graceling. I didn't just like - I really, really liked it. Generally "I couldn't put it down" is the highest compliment a person can give a book, but I kept forcing myself to take (short) breaks from this one - because I didn't want the adventure to be finished!
Katsa discovered her Graceling power at the tender age of eight - when she killed a lecherous cousin by punching him in the nose and sending shards of bone into his brain. In a world where Graceling abilities can range from swimming to cooking to archery to mind-reading, Katsa's is a fearsome Grace that is immediately put to use by her uncle, King Randa. He has Katsa trained to become his lady killer - a lady of the court who can also kill with her bare hands - or an arrow, or a sword, or a dagger.
But Katsa is more than just the lady killer - with the help of a few sympathetic members of the king's court, she has formed a Council that seeks to right the wrongs committed by kings and other people in power who would abuse their place. While a killer certainly is good as an assassin, Katsa finds her skills are just as useful at helping her sneak through the dark, or incapacitating people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When the Council undertakes a mission to rescue the kidnapped father of the Lienid king, Prince Po becomes one of those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time - Katsa quickly incapacitates him and continues with her mission. But Po - grandson of the man Katsa was rescuing - is a Graceling himself, with skills that are almost a match for Katsa.
Katsa finds Po's presence at court intoxicating and confusing - but when the kidnapping of Po's grandfather leads to a deeper mystery, he and Katsa are the only ones who can save a young princess in danger from her father, and unravel the mystery that could threaten the stability of the seven kingdoms.
This book pretty much has everything one could want in a book: action, adventure, mystery, and romance. Cashore has created a very well rounded world that I hope we get to visit again. Some of her world building comes off as a bit heavy handed; for example, Katsa and Po have several conversations about Graces that at first feel like really, really obvious foreshadowing, but when those conversations don't actually have any bearing on anything else that happens in the story it begins to feel like they were stray thoughts about how Graces work that Cashore felt she absolutely had to address, and did so in an awkward way. Not to mention that at times Katsa comes off as a little overpowered - is there anything she can't do?
What was wonderful, however, is the strong feminist undertone throughout the book. Katsa has lots of extremely feminist thoughts about marriage and self-defense for women, noting that men, who have the most power, physically and politically, are the ones who are trained to wield weapons and fight, while women who are powerless in every way, and in most need of defense, learn nothing. I always love a good story about a woman who knows how to take care of herself (whether that's physical fighting like Katsa, or a more intellectual wit, such as Frankie Landau-Banks has) and wants to teach others the same skill.
Finally, is it just me or is this other cover for the book soooooooooooo much cooler than the cover my version had. Because women with weapons just look badass, and I don't recall sai's appearing anywhere in the story.