Katsa is the niece of the king in the centermost of the Seven Kingdoms. Her eyes, one blue and one green, tell everyone that she is Graced, but it is her uncle, King Randa, who is responsible for making Katsa and her Grace known to all. Katsa is deadly and King Randa uses her for his dirty work, a position Katsa grows more and more disgusted with. When she meets the Lienid Prince Po who appears similarly Graced, she begins to think differently about her Grace and how she lets it define her. But first Katsa and Po must deal with a king more dangerous and controlling than Randa.
The characters of Graceling, Kristin Cashore’s 2008 debut novel, are what drive this book. It is a quick read following Katsa on a journey both physical and emotional. Katsa is captivating because of her intense internal conflict. She cannot deny her Grace because it is a part of who she is but neither does she want it to be the only thing that defines her. Similarly, she doesn’t want to belong to anyone but herself and the society she lives in makes that a very difficult accomplishment for women. Katsa and Po have wonderful chemistry though it occasionally drifts towards the melodramatic (something that I think must be a requirement of any fiction marketed towards a teen audience).
There are some supporting characters that I wish had a stronger presence in the novel. Helda, Katsa’s insightful handmaid, was a fun change from the somewhat oblivious (though endearing) Katsa. Her supportive cousin, Prince Raffin, and his medicinal concoctions with unusual side effects provided a lot of humor throughout the book. And though Katsa wasn’t always fond of him, I found I was sorry to see less of Giddon as the plot took Katsa out of his presence.
If I had to pick one weakness for the novel, I’d have to say it’s the pacing. It moves at a comfortable pace but every once in a while it seems to speed up too much. The beginning and a number of key plot points are so abrupt I had to reread some of them, making myself read slower so I didn’t miss what exactly happened. Considering the build-up to most of these scenes, it was disappointing that there wasn’t more to them. They were surprising, but not necessarily in a good way. I think there could also be more about the political situations of the Seven Kingdoms; enough was given for the plot, but I’d like to know more of the histories between them.
There are some obligatory stages of Katsa’s personal growth that could easily dissolve into clichés but Cashore doesn’t give in to those impulses as often as a number of writers of teen fiction do. It’s also nice to see a book being marketed to young adult girls where the heroine is truly empowering. Katsa not only can protect herself, but she feels it’s important that all young girls should be taught how to help themselves. Katsa’s words and actions match (unlike a few other popular young adult novels I could mention but won’t).
Cashore’s second venture to the Seven Kingdoms Fire, released last October, diverges from Katsa’s story. But the third book in the series, Bitterblue, scheduled for a 2011 release, promises to be more of a return to the characters from Graceling.