Review (Amazon): Kristin Cashore’s best-selling, award-winning fantasy Graceling tells the story of the vulnerable yet strong Katsa, a smart, beautiful teenager who lives in a world where selected people are given a Grace, a special talent that can be anything from dancing to swimming. Katsa’s is killing. As the king’s niece, she is forced to use her extreme skills as his thug. Along the way, Katsa must learn to decipher the true nature of her Grace . . . and how to put it to good use. A thrilling, action-packed fantasy adventure (and steamy romance!) that will resonate deeply with adolescents trying to find their way in the world.
My Review (SpOiLeRs!!!):
Executive Summary: a fun escape
The book is set in the Seven Kingdoms which were originally ruled by the same family, but now many generations later, each has a different ruler–some good and some bad. In this land, certain children are born with two different colored eyes and a special skill of some sort. These children are called Gracelings and their skill is called their Grace. The main character Katsa is a Graceling who is from the Middluns and her Grace is killing.
As it is the protocol in most of the kingdoms, Gracelings are given to the ruler once their Grace appears and the ruler can determine whether the Grace is of use. (If your Grace is holding your breath underwater for a long time, it might not be. If that’s the case, you’re sent home to your parents.) Katsa’s mother was the sister of the Middluns king so either way, she ended up as the king’s ward at a young age when her parents died. Once her Grace appeared at age 8 as she accidentally killed her distant cousin, a creep who liked little girls and tried to touch her, the king put her to work.
It was a lonely childhood as most view the Graced as people to avoid–a sort of curse. Especially in Katsa’s case. Her only friend was the King’s son Raffin, her cousin. Eventually she also gained the confidence of Captain Oll who helped her train as well as a woman named Helda who was the nurse of the royal nurseries, but who had a son who was a Graceling who she had left behind so she took a particular fondness to Katsa.
As Katsa grew older, she trained in all fighting skills and did King Randa’s dirty work. She continued to get more and more disenchanted with it. She, Raffin, and a few others decide to start using their skills for good and assemble a council.
The book begins with a mission. Katsa, Captain Oll and Giddon (one of Randa’s right hand men) were in the dungeons of Sunder to rescue the father of the King of Leinid (Prince Tealiff) who had been kidnapped. During the process while Katsa knocks the guards unconscious and gives them some sleeping medicine developed by Raffin, she encounters another Graceling, a Lienid, who she wasn’t expecting. She doesn’t want to kill anyone but she also doesn’t want her plan foiled. She debates what to do with him and eventually leaves him unconscious like the others. They rescue the Prince and take him back to Middluns to hide him and figure out who kidnapped him and why.
They immediately thought of the kings of Wester, Nander, and Estill as they were typically the most troublesome. King Randa for the most part minded his own business so he wasn’t likely to blame. King Ror of Leinid was the least troublesome and well-liked by his people. Even King Murgon of Sunder where the Prince was found was typically only doing someone else’s bidding, not plotting something on his own. The only other kingdom was Monsea who was ruled by King Leck whose wife was a Leinid and also the daughter of Prince Tealiff. Monsea was separated geographically but the general view was that King Leck was well liked and kind to children and animals. However, the word was also out that the queen had locked herself in her room after hearing of her father’s disappearance.
After returning to the kingdom after some time away, it turns out that Prince Tealiff hasn’t spoken. She asks Raffin if he had ever heard of a Graceling Leinid and Raffin mentions that he’s the son of King Ror and is in the Middluns castle at the moment as he is searching for his kidnapped grandfather. On the way to her rooms to dress for dinner, she sees him a floor above and feels his gaze on her.
At dinner, she is seated next to Giddon and next to the next potential suitor, Lord Davit, that King Randa has arranged, except this one has come to inquire about the Council. Katsa overhears the King telling a story about her and gets enraged and leaves the dinner to go for a walk. The Leinid Prince, Po, finds her at the archery range. He explains that he is no good at fighting with weapons but is graced with hand to hand combat. He’s looking for his grandpa and he fights Katsa, an even fight, to get some answers, and he is invited to that evening’s Council meeting.
Po remains in Middluns until they decide what to do, practicing fighting with Katsa which continues to make Lord Giddon upset. Katsa and Po get to know each other out of the ring too as Katsa has never really met any other Gracelings. She learns that he has six older brothers, his own castle, and has never felt weird about his Grace. In the meantime, Lord Randa sends Katsa to do his bidding. When she arrives, she makes the decision to not follow orders because she knows the King can’t actually harm her. She also refuses Giddon’s proposal for marriage but something he says gives her cause for concern–it’s an exact phrase that Po has said to her. When she returns to Middluns, she confronts Po that his Grace is not what he has said–he is in fact a mind reader. Katsa is furious, but Po eventually convinces her that he has to keep it a secret so that he can lead a relatively normal life. He tells her that he is leaving the following day and asks her to come with him.
Before she can answer, she gets called in to see the King for her disobedience. The king has lined up all his best soldiers to confront her, 10x more than the usual amount. Instead of unleashing her fury, she listens to Po’s voice in her head and tells the King how she could defeat all the soldiers and still get to him and then tells the King that she will no longer be his pawn and is leaving the following day with Po.
As she and Po travel, she becomes more accepting of his Grace and they figure out a way to make it work. He openly shares with her and she practices on guarding the thoughts that she doesn’t want him to outright know and also how to communicate with him without speaking. He boosts her confidence, first by suggesting that she keep in mind that she started the Council so therefore is not completely evil and only good for doing the King’s bidding and then leading to her revelation that in fact, her Grace is not actually fighting–it’s survival.
Po also tells her the tale of the King of Monsea. The previous King and Queen of Monsea yearned for a child but never could have one. One day, a young boy arrived, wearing an eye patch, and charms the King, Queen and the rest of Monsea. The King and Queen take him in, feeling pity for this poor boy who has no home and has lost an eye. So a few years later, when the King and Queen still do not have an heir, they name him the heir. Only a few days later, the King, Queen and their closest advisers had all died.
They collect information along the way which leads them into changing their plans to head to Monsea instead to talk to King Leck. And then they realize that his eye patch might mean that he’s actually Graced and has used the patch to hide it. They suspect that King Leck’s Grace is distributing misinformation. So they head that way and assume that Po’s Grace will protect them. As they travel, both Katsa and Po hone their Grace. Po begins to be able to sense things around him, even inanimate things that could not be thinking of him. Katsa and Po also begin to think about each other. Katsa does not want to get married or have children, and Po is OK with that.
When they arrive in Monsea, they stumble across a scene–a woman is running from an army of men, led by a man with an eye patch. The woman is shot in the back trying to escape. Po tells Katsa to kill King Leck, but he sees them and goes on about what a terrible accident the whole thing was so Katsa doubts what she has just seen and puts down her bow. Po and Katsa run into the woods although Katsa’s thoughts are blurry and disoriented and she doesn’t understand what is going on. It takes a while for her to realize that she was fooled by Leck’s Grace. He shot his own wife in front of Katsa and he was still able to convince her that it was an accident.
They hide out in the woods until they believe that it is safe (that King Leck’s men aren’t looking for them) and they go off in search of Bitterblue, the King’s daughter who took off and is hiding. Luckily Bitterblue’s mom thought about where Bitterblue was hiding as she died so Po has a good idea of where it is.
Once they find Bitterblue, she reinforces that her father needs to be killed. He tortures children and animals. And her mother locked the two of them up so that her father couldn’t get to Bitterblue. King Leck stole Prince Tealiff to try to blackmail Bitterblue’s mother into changing her mind. Po is to set out early to find King Leck and kill him. However, he returns very injured and King Leck is very much still alive. Po remains in hiding because he will slow them down due to his injuries. Po gives Katsa his ring so that his parents will trust her, and Katsa and Bitterblue set off to Leinid. They take an impossible pass since Leck and his minions will be watching for them at the obvious ones.
The journey is incredibly difficult but Katsa’s Grace protects them. Eventually they arrive at Po’s castle and his whole family is there…with King Leck. King Leck has the entire family in a trance. Luckily Bitterblue has fought against him long enough to be able to combat his trickery some. King Leck wants to talk about Po–where he is and how he is doing. When he begins to suggest that Po’s Grace is more than just fighting, Po’s mom and Katsa become agitated and Katsa kills Leck with a dagger to the throat.
It takes quite a while for the effects of Leck’s spell to stop but eventually Po’s family realize that they had been tricked. They set off the next morning to take Bitterblue back to Monsea where she will be the new queen. They make their way back to find Po. He has healed some but Katsa finds him depressed and not the fun loving person she left. Eventually, she realizes that he is blind–blinded during his fall into the river after his attack with Leck’s men. His Grace keeps the others from realizing what has happened. Katsa begins training him as well as Bitterblue so that Po can get back to full health and Bitterblue can learn to protect herself. She decides to take her skills on tour–starting in Monsea where she continues to teach Bitterblue along with other girls how to fight. The book ends with her planning to meet Po back in Leinid in the fall.
Verdict: 3.5 stars
This book was a fun, easy read. It had a lot of resemblance to Hunger Games but it didn’t feel quite so dark. I did enjoy that while it was still a YA, it wasn’t the traditional “I’m just waiting for that man to come along and suddenly I’ll be smitten and get married and have babies!!!” On the other hand, I wished that we got to see a bit more depth out of Katsa throughout the book. Maybe in the next one.