Katsa can attack faster than the eye can track and kill a man with her bare hands. From early childhood, she has been a prodigy with every kind of weapon, able to outguess and out-fight any opponent. She is a Graceling, born with one blue eye and one green, and a skill that makes her dangerous and nearly invincible. And she is the ward of her uncle, a king who uses her to instill fear and groveling subservience in his subjects.
On the night that she and a small crew of clandestine Council members–a secret band of plotters and warriors throughout the seven kingdoms who try to right the abuses of power–rescue a kidnapped old man from a corrupt neighboring king, Katsa encounters another Graceling, a prince with a silver eye and a gold eye, who identifies her. The discovery will place her life and the rescue in danger but some impulse prevents her from killing and she leaves him unconscious as the Council members make their escape.
The kidnapping is the tip of a horrible mystery that unravels amid murder, power-grabs, abuse and perversion. Katsa refuses to carry out an order from her uncle to torture a man who will not hand over his daughter and a large dowry for a doomed arranged marriage. She stuns herself by walking out of the palace, reclaiming control of her life and her deadly Grace. But she is now a hunted enemy of King Randa, forced to leave behind her faithful serving woman and her best friend, the king’s son Raffin, who has no stomach for his father’s greed and oppression.
And Katsa has gained an unwelcome ally—Po, a prince of Lienid, grandson of the kidnapped old man and the Graceling who identified her on her mission to free the grandfather. Po’s Grace is sensing—he has an uncanny ability to know what someone is thinking about him and to feel when something or someone is approaching. Katsa considers Po’s gift to be a direct threat to her autonomy and resists her growing feelings for him.
Too much detail would spoil a fast-paced, surprising plot full of adventure, terror, difficult lessons about trust, struggles to gain control of lethal Graces and to survive, dawning awareness of the evil and perversion masked by a hideous Grace in one of the kingdoms. The major characters are all extraordinary for their times, respected and feared by the general populace, strong, plucky, beleaguered, and challenged at every turn by impossible tasks they must complete to defeat the darkness creeping over the kingdoms. Katsa sheds some of her defenses to uncover her real Grace and to save an appealing child princess who is tough and wise beyond her years. Po breaks through the walls around Katsa but cannot save himself from a wrenching sacrifice to protect the child. The journeys are epic and full of danger—the characters are very decently drawn and sympathetic. The story is an exceptionally dark fairytale with pain, heartbreak and determination replacing magic spells.
Graceling is labeled a YA book but it’s an engrossing, convincing and terrific read for anyone who loves a good story. Kristin Cashore has written a prequel of sorts—Fire, published second in a 3-book series, precedes the events in Graceling but it isn’t the story of the Graceling characters. Bitterblue, scheduled for May 2012 publication, is the sequel to Graceling, a more conventional sequel that tells the story of the small princess from the first book as she becomes the queen of her land. Both Fire and Graceling are award-winning bestsellers so my recommendation of Cashore’s work is just an echo of her wide market appeal and solid ability to tell an absorbing tale.
Graceling Kristin Cashore | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2008