I lost a night of sleep and a day of work to this book. Usually drawn to
decidedly toothier fare, I was ready for a little treat. I was not prepared for
an all-encompassing vortex of storytelling that would render all of my other
responsibilities utterly unimportant. Both a gripping adventure tale and a
moving portrait of a tempestuous, beautifully flawed young woman coming of age,
Graceling marks the debut of a truly gifted writer.
Every so often in The Seven Kingdoms, a child is born with mismatched eyes. These children are Graced, or gifted, with an extreme skill, and are sent into the service of the king as their Grace develops. Some are Graced with mind-reading, cooking, or dancing, but Graceling's heroine, Katsa, is Graced with fighting. She can clear a room of 20 armed men in minutes, with her bare hands. She's ten times faster and stronger than any soldier, her aim with bows, swords and knives deadly accurate. Placed in the service of her uncle, King Randa, she has no choice but to do his bidding as he dispatches her to carry out painful punishment against those who have failed to follow his orders. An orphan who knows no other world, Katsa lives within Randa's walls journeying only on her violent missions, her social skills stunted, having trained with single-minded determination since childhood, isolated from and feared by all others. As she grows up she begins to question her missions, becoming frightened and sickened by her own violence. She starts to rebel, refusing to kill her victims, meting mercy wherever she can, and forms an underground network of citizens of The Seven Kingdoms that carries out secret plans against the corruption and evil throughout the land.
On one of her secret missions, Katsa almost meets her match in another Graceling, a handsomely mysterious young man named Po who seems to share her Grace for combat. He's still no physical match for Katsa, but his challenge to her reaches far beyond brute strength and skill, stirring battles within her that force her to question her true nature. In a fantastic twist on the classic coming-of-age novel, Katsa struggles with her developing self-awareness and her growing friendship with Po, wrestling with her Grace and its implications, wondering "When a monster stopped behaving like a monster, did it stop being a monster? Did it become something else?" Just what that "something else" is underscores the rest of this terrifically captivating novel, as Katsa and Po embark on an elaborate, heart-stopping mission to save The Seven Kingdoms. They also begin an equally pulse-quickening romance, but Katsa's feminist convictions keep it far from a knight-in-shining-armor fairy tale. She prizes her independence, wishes to remain her own protector and defender, and refuses to yield her power to a husband or her independence to children. In a medieval world where girls her age are courting marriage, Katsa's notions are anathema to everyone except Po. Their romance is at once innocent and strikingly mature, impassioned and thoughtful, in the emotional realm of adults, but sparked with the electricity of a first teenage love. The adventure and the romance intertwine seamlessly, and the action is heightened by the deeply developed emotional and intellectual undertones.
As I closed the cover and reluctantly emerged from Kristin Cashore's narrative grasp, I already felt starved for more, and I'm relieved to know that she's hard at work on both a prequel and a sequel. I can't help but remark that Ms. Cashore's Grace is keenly evident in this remarkable debut novel, and I can't wait to see where she takes her characters next. The prequel, Fire published last week. It has one cross-over character with Graceling, a small boy with strange two-colored eyes who comes from no-one-knows-where, and who has a peculiar ability that Graceling readers will find familiar and disturbing.
This review was originally published in November 2008, and has been updated for the September 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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