Katsa is a young woman who lives at the court of her uncle, the ruler of the Middluns, one of the Seven Kingdoms. She is Graced, which means she possesses a talent at which she is especially gifted. Such talents can be mundane (such as exceptional skill at fishing) or politically useful, and those who have useful talents are sent to their king, to be put to use. Gracelings have eyes of two different colors, which makes them immediately recognizable to others. Katsa is an incredible fighter, and when she accidentally kills a man (who has accosted her), her uncle decides to put her to use as an enforcer, threatening and punishing those who do not follows his rules.
Katsa feels like a thug, and she begins to hate herself as much as she hates what her uncle forces her to do. She gathers her friends, though, and forms a sort of underground resistance that enables her to do positive things with her abilities. As the book opens, we find her on a mission to rescue someone who's been kidnapped, and on that mission she meets Po, a man who has a Grace to rival her own.
The two become friends, after a period of adjustment for Katsa, who is a prickly person and doesn't allow people to get very close to her. There's just something about him that gets past her defenses and makes her look at the world - and herself - in a different light. She and Po travel forth to investigate something that turns out to be a threat to all the Seven Kingdoms, and they come up against a foe so twisted and cunning that it seems impossible that they could begin to find a way to foil his plans.
I loved this book from the first chapter. Katsa is a likable, admirable heroine - strong and kind, stubborn and intelligent, but because she is an orphan brought up as a feared outsider forced to act as a thug for her borderline psychotic uncle, she has a few self-esteem issues to sort out. The characters shine in this book, and the way in which Katsa's relationship with Po unfolds is utterly delightful. The fantasy world is a fairly generic one, but the intriguing magic, well-developed characters and the taut pacing combine in a skillfully told story that turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2008. Fans of Tamora Pierce are sure to adore this book, which is apparently the first book in a series. While it has a satisfying, conclusive ending, there is no doubt that I will be ready to hear more about the adventures of Katsa, Po, and their comrades in the Seven Kingdoms.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt Books, 2008)
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Beyond Books: "Katsa is a strong heroine with a good head on her shoulders. She was very likable and fun to read. Her struggles seemed real and not superficial and one of the things I really liked was that she was concerned about the other girls she would meet."
Bookshelves of Doom: "In short, I adored it. It's an adventure story with spot-on character development, a super-duper romantic love story (that yes, made me cry), a survival story with lots of political intrigue and yeah, there's more."
Jen Robinson's Book Page: "Graceling has it all: an interesting premise, an action-packed, conflict-filled plot, characters and settings that feel real, and fluid, descriptive prose. I can't wait for the second book!