Gracelings are people with exceptional skills. Where the average person can run fast, a Graceling with the gift of running can run like Flash. Where a regular person can be a very good cook, a Graceling with the gift of cooking can make even better food. But for all their amazing abilities, Gracelings are feared. They are property of the king of the kingdom they are born to. Katsa is one such Graceling, the king’s niece, able to kill with her bare hands since she was a child. She had been the king’s private assassin for many years. But when she meets another Graceling from another kingdom, she has no idea how much her life will change. She is forced to examine everything she’s ever believed about her abilities and where her place in the world is meant to be.
This is a strange series, since it doesn’t follow the conventions of a typical book. It’s almost like a TV show, where you’re watching a bunch of episodes back to back. They have some underlining threads running from one section to the next, but for the most part, they have their own stories that are more or less resolved before moving on to the next one. It’s not a good or bad thing, only an unusual one. (Somewhat similar to the way the Alanna series by Tamora Pierce works.)
The reason this works, is because Cashore manages to make Katsa a multi-dimensional character. Her emotions feel very real and you can relate to her every thought and confusion. While the plot seems to change, we have Katsa to hold on to and care about throughout.
Not all of the characters are as well-rounded. Bitterblue, who becomes important in the second half or so of the book, is one of the least developed characters. She’s sympathetic and sweet, even stronger than the average child, but little more. (This is all right, especially since she is getting her own book soon so we will undoubtedly learn more about her then.)
The place I find the story most lacking is in the structure of the world itself. There are seven kingdoms, each ruled by a different king, that are close enough that their politics and commerce are closely connected. But the truth is we don’t get enough of a look into the seven different kingdoms. Why do we need so many? I would have preferred fewer, say four, that we could get to know more intimately than a larger number where we only got bits and pieces of each. Even the important ones didn’t feel fully developed. We spend a large portion of time in Monsea but I don’t feel like I know anything about the place (aside from the king itself).
The love story, though predictable for the most part, is still well done. You still feel a deep connection to Po and Katsa that you don’t always feel with other fantasy couples.
It’s a solid book, not a top ten, but definitely on the positive list.