Graceling by Kristin Cashore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Graceling tells the story of Katsa, a young woman in the court of her cousin, a manipulative and vindictive king. Katsa is a Graceling, one of a a small percentage of the population given a Grace, or special ability. There are many Graces, from mundane things like swimming to fighting and mind-reading. Gracelings are identified by their eyes, which are two different colors. Katsa's are green and blue. Her Grace seems to be killing. Her cousin uses her as an enforcer, sending her to physically punish and even kill those of his subjects that have crossed or angered him. Katsa deals with the guilt by forming a secret Council, who take on tasks promoting justice and tolerance. During one such mission, to rescue a kidnapped noble from a neighboring kingdom, Katsa gets involved in the machinations of a cruel and abusive king. In the process, Katsa learns the true nature of her Grace, and begins to let down her own walls.
I don't normally like YA stories. I think it's because I'm a cranky, old lady, and when faced with characters who are not quite children and not quite adults, I find myself muttering, "Grow up, already!" far too often. Of course, the growing up is the point of these stories. And this is one I had a hard time putting down. Cashore manages to give Katsa all the issues and emotional turbulence of any young person trying to find their way to adulthood without turning her into an overly moody teenager. Katsa is tough (or at least she thinks she is), active, and intelligent. She does not open herself to friendship easily, but she has had a secluded life. Her ability to kill with her bare hands manifested early in her life, and people pulled away from her in fear.
The setting is a typical fantasy world, without races other than humans. There are multiple kingdoms with their own intrigues and political maneuvering. Characters are well drawn, with even some minor characters taking on a fully realized personality. There are a few stereotypes: the cruel king who tortures and kills for pleasure, a suitor who can't understand Katsa's reluctance to accept him, but they are few.
The storyline is well drawn. Plot points move along quickly, with a good amount of action. I found the climax a bit too quickly won, but not enough to ruin the reading experience.
Graceling is one of the better examples of genre YA and is certainly worth a read, not only for young people, but anyone who likes a good fantasy with an interesting concept and believable characters.
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