Kristin Cashore's Graceling takes place in a fantasy world that appears to be without magic, but where some people are born with Graces, special skills of almost any variety. These people, marked by their different-colored eyes, are abnormally gifted in random areas like swimming, fighting, cooking, dancing, or really anything under the sun. The protagonist of the story, Katsa, is the niece of a king, and she is Graced with killing. Her uncle uses her as his strongarm, forcing her to maim or kill people who cross him. By night, however, Katsa and her friends work to right wrongs committed by Katsa's uncle and the other kings of the seven kingdoms. On one such mission, they free the kidnapped father of one of the kings, and Katsa encounters another Graceling. He shows up at Katsa's home court and reveals himself to be the grandson of the very man Katsa helped to rescue. Greening, or Po, as he likes to be called, becomes quite close with Katsa, and after an upheaval at the court, they leave to find out why Po's grandfather was kidnapped.
First off, I really liked the characters in this book. Katsa really struggled with coming to terms with herself, her Grace, and where she belonged in the scheme of things. Po likewise struggled with his own Grace and what it meant for him. Their relationship was extremely intense, and while it was pretty obvious it was going to happen from the start, it might have escalated form companionship to outright love a little too quickly for my taste. I also hope that Giddon finds someone in the other two books in the series--I really liked him, and while Katsa was perfectly justified in not wanting to marry him, I'd like to see more of him in the future. Bitterblue (strange name, even for a fantasy world) was very mature for her age...I AM kind of skeptical about that, but that kid went through some serious shit, so maybe that's behind her mental age? Leck, as a villain, was weird and scary but not entirely believable because we never really learned anything about him. Sure, Po and Bitterblue both said some stuff about him, but he only made two on-page appearances, one of which was only a few lines, so it's hard to actually grasp his motivations and how he came to be what he was.
I saw some weaknesses with the time with just Katsa and Bitterblue; it just wasn't that riveting. And Katsa's constantly calling Bitterblue "child" was downright annoying. I mean, yeah, Bitterblue's a little kid, but calling her "child" instead of calling her by her name or title ("Princess") just came across as weird. Also, the similarities between Katsa and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games (K-named warrior girls who are kind of naive about the world and are super good at archery) are striking, but since the books were published at about the same time, I'm pretty damn sure that's purely coincidence. I think Graceling is also structured a lot better than The Hunger Games; it's self-contained, rather than straggling much longer than necessary across three books.
Probably my favorite non-plot part of the book, however (well, it WAS plot related, kind of) was the culture surrounding the ornaments of the Lienid people. Absolutely beautifully done. Well done, Ms. Cashore. Well done. The culture of the other six kingdoms, was kind of vague and they were all just lumped together.
Overall, Graceling was a lovely read full of fabulous characters. It did have flaws, of course, but they were more than compensated for by its high points. A wonderful book, and I am greatly looking forward to reading Fire.
4 stars out of 5.