Graceling by Kristen Cashore. Harcourt 2008. 471 pp. ISBN 978-0152063962 $16.99
Since my one allowed bag weighed 70lbs, I was determined NOT to pick up ANY books at ALA this year (don’t tell, I still have some from last year, that I haven’ t gotten to). But on Saturday morning, when I was walking through the exhibit hall, I was struck by a poster of a dagger with an eye reflected in it, and a beautiful blue and tan painterly map background, adorned by flowers (seabane, perhaps?)
Stop, said my practical ego. You don’t need any more books! My id replied, Pretty! and my hand disobeyed, and reached out to pick up the ARC.
I glanced at the back. Fantasy. You are hard to please, when it comes to fantastic fiction…, nagged my ego. Mmm, but the names are pronounceable… I argued with myself. Regretfully, I started to put the book back. Then I noticed the author was signing. Right now, right there. Ok, ok, I acquiesced. I declined the temporary tattoo (I am as anti-temporary tattoo as I am glitter, nothing personal!) and asked Kristin Cashore to sign my book.
I tucked it into my carry-on and saved it for the 5 hour flight home. At first glance, I thought, a book whose author gives five of seven kingdoms names reminiscent of compass points may not have much imagination, but I let it go and kept on, intrigued at first by the concept of an 8-year-old who has a haunting skill–the ability to kill a man with her bare hands. I was drawn into story and compelled to continue by the relationships between deeply developed characters, and the complete worldbuilding.
I couldn’t put Graceling down. I devoured it in three hours.
Katsa is a Graceling, one of a rare group of people born with a special and extreme skill. Some have talent with plants or animals, some are skilled at physical activities, some can influence others or read minds. Her unique talent puts her at the mercy of doing the bidding of her uncle the king as little more than a thug. She balances the distaste of hurting people with subversive political activities, creating alliances within the seven kingdoms, and finds herself at the heart of unraveling the plot to kidnap the King, after she and her friends have rescued him.
The setting is thoughtful, detailed, and unique. The characters have distinct voices, and linger long after the end of the book. Even supporting characters are well-drawn. The story is a well-paced blend of internal struggle, history and culture of the kingdoms, storytelling, fight scenes, and adventuring.
The story of Katsa growing into and controlling her Grace is balanced with story of her growing friendship of the Lienid prince, Po. Unfortunately, both the publisher blurb and Amazon spoil the budding romance between the two main characters. (EDIT 7/15/08: I’ve found out from the author that this won’t be the case on the actual book jacket, though, perhaps readers more savvy than I will figure out what’s going on early in the story) I’d have liked, as a reader, for the realization to wash over me, the same way it strikes Katsa, who doesn’t even want to be beholden to another person, get married, or bear a child.
This fantasy adventure tale has a heroine, a journey, a good vs. evil battle, and heart-throbbing romance. Ultimately, though, it is a story of self-discovery, and dare I say it, identity. I admire most of all the sense of ownership Katsa comes to feel about herself and her body. One of my very favorite parts of the book is where Katsa and Po realize they are more than just friends, and instead of jumping into anything, they stop, think, and TALK, and take precautions when it becomes necessary. Po is now vying alongside Marcus Flutie and Jacob Black for best boyfriend in YA fiction. And I cannot WAIT for the next book, Fire, a prequel.