by Kristin Cashore
“She couldn't steal herself back from Randa only to give herself away again - belong to another person, be answerable to another person, build her very being around another person.”
Katsa is a Graceling, a person gifted at a young age with a magically enhanced talent. You can be graced with swimming or fighting or painting or really anything, and find yourself preternaturally disposed to succeed in this particular activity. Katsa's grace is killing.
Because of this, she has become the reluctant enforcer of her Uncle, King Randa's tyrannical whims. As an escape, she and the Council she created secretly right the wrongs in the 7 kingdoms. On one such mission, she meets Po, youngest son of King Ror, and a graceling fighter, or so he says. Through her relationship with Po, she finds the strength to break free of Randa's influence, and she and the young prince embark on a dangerous mission against a deadly enemy, a king who may have the power to control people's minds.
This book began very much like a Tamora Pierce book: established world, young girl who is a stubborn fighter who never wants to marry. I thought it would follow the same way: girl meets guy and they are friends until they defeat the evil guy and at the very end they decide that they love each other and want to get married.
Not so with this book, resulting in a fuller, meatier story.
Katsa falls for Po right away, at first in a cute, blushy, must-ignore-his-pecs kind of way. However, in the middle of the book, it deepens into something true and resonant. It makes them weak and it gives them strength. In a book that wrestles with what it means to have power over someone (psychological, physical and magical) it also explores the power of loving someone. Katsa wrestles with giving someone power over her in this relationship, and in the end, the power of their relationship is what gives them the strength they need to endure not just the bad guy, but their own internal struggles.
Neither of them are perfect, but they fight and they communicate and they listen to each other and they wrestle with very real relationship problems. And both characters are so compelling and kick-ass that you are invested in them every step of the way.
There are kingdoms at stake too, and one small girl named Bitterblue who steals the show as a 10 year old who has had to grow up too fast. But the relationship is the core of the book.
Often this would bother me. "Why can't we have a girl story where she is not mooning over a guy?" I would lament. But usually, in those stories, the relationship is a reward, or a sidebar to the main plot. A nice way to tie up the story. In this book, the relationship is the point, the catalyst, the driving force, the problem, and the solution.
The story also explores the idea of self-perception. If someone tells you you are one thing ever since you were little, how does that change your life when you realize you are something else. Katsa thinks her grace is killing. But what if it is not?
This is an excellent book, and I am so excited to read the rest of the trilogy!