Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).
Killing and romance--a proven combo in YA fiction--triumph again in this thrilling debut novel from Kristin Cashore. And she does it without vampires or werewolves!
Graceling is set in a fantasy world of seven countries ruled by seven kings where some people are born with special gifts--called graces. Some graces are less useful than others, but once a person is known to have a grace--marked by the eyes becoming distinctly different colors, usually at a young age--he or she is sent to the king, who may choose to exploit that grace. Katsa, the king's niece, is a killer, and her uncle has been exploiting her grace to control his subjects for years. The strong-willed Katsa has also formed a secret Council that allows her to use her grace for good, for she frequently despises her uncle's commands, and this bit of rebellion helps assuage her conscience.
As the novel opens, Katsa and two of her fellow council members have traveled to another kingdom to rescue the grandfather of another king. No one is quite sure why he's been kidnapped, but he is old and infirm and needs help, so Katsa has set out on this mission en route to another official one for the king. It is imperative that she keep her unofficial work a secret from the king, who would become enraged if he knew that Katsa was using her grace for purposes he has not condoned. The mission goes well--Katsa is able to dispatch all the guards without killing them, her preferred method, and rescue the grandfather. The only glitch: she happens upon an unexpected person, a man graced with exceptional fighting skills who sends Katsa mixed messages. She opts not to kill him, though he would be able to identify her. This man turns out to be Prince Po, who is also seeking the grandfather--his grandfather! When they meet again, Po has sought the help of Katsa's king, and Po and Katsa become sparring partners, and eventually much more.
Throughout the novel, Katsa is honing her grace, coming to terms with her power, and deciding how best to deploy it. Katsa and Po embark on a dangerous mission that could alter the lives of everyone in the seven kingdoms, for the kidnapping of the grandfather was indeed part of a grand plan to conquer all the land. Cashore masterfully weaves the themes of control--on a macro and micro level--throughout the novel, as Katsa must not only learn to control her grace, but how to deal with others who are trying to control her use of it. There is also the control dynamic woven into the culture of the kingdoms--of kings controlling land and people, and men controlling the lives of women.
This is a fabulous, exciting, breathtaking novel with strong characters and themes--grand and rewarding on many levels. Highly recommended for grades 7 & up. Violence & mild sexual situations.
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