Fierce heroines are few and far between in young adult fiction. Sure, there are examples like Katniss in the Hunger Games or Annabeth from the Percy Jackson series, but generally most heroines are better described as feisty or resilient and most heroines definitely need the help of their hero, not defeat them daily.
Katsa is truly fierce. She is blessed with a Grace that allows her to kill grown men with her bare hands. She can survive with little sleep or food and her senses can dodge an arrow in the dark. She has one green eye and one blue one and she is an outcast.
Graceling is a fantasy set in a fictional world of seven kingdoms (seven seems to be the magic number for kingdoms these days). In this world, some people are born with different coloured eyes, which marks them as having a Grace. A Grace is a special skill and can be in any form. It could be a baking Grace or a swimming Grace, something as mundane as sewing or something truly spectacular like Katsa’s. One thing they all have in common is that anyone with a Grace automatically belongs to the King (to be used for their purposes) and anyone that has a Grace is someone feared rather than revered. Katsa isn’t an outcast in the normal sense of the word, as she’s the niece of the King of the Middluns and is referred to as a Lady, but she is generally avoided by everyone she encounters.
The story follows Katsa through a simple errand that turns out to be much bigger than it seems on the surface. The book is neatly split into three sections, the first focusing on the errand and Katsa’s life in court, the second on a quest for answers and the third on a journey and resolution. The entire book is written beautifully, with really rich detail. Every plot twist and story development was revealed in perfect time and I found myself amazed at the depth of the book. I would elaborate more, but the pleasure of reading the book and its charm was, for me, experiencing the story unfold and witnessing each complexity mature.
Also, every character in the book was well-rounded and interesting. Katsa’s character is a breath of fresh air and truly well-developed. A young beautiful girl with the strength and passion to create a Council of covert politics and strives for truth and justice. She has no intention to marry, not because she’s stubborn, but because she has considered the implications and decided she would burden any future husband. She finds splendor in new sights and surroundings, but quickly adapts. She has the power to kill but chooses not to do so without reason. She shows affection but doesn’t fall prey to her emotions. And when Katsa does develop feelings, her priorities remain firmly on the cause.
Her feelings eventually grow for Prince Po, a Graced prince from the kingdom of Liened who she meets unexpectedly on her errand and then again at court. Po is a great character and everything you expect from a fictional prince—he’s charming, polite and skilled (although Katsa spars and defeats him on a daily basis). He’s kind, self-sacrificing, funny and practical and makes the perfect foil for Katsa as he grew up in the only kingdom where having a Grace is honoured. His intentions and feelings are never less than genuine, but he considers their relationship with the same caution and care that she does. Refreshingly, they both do right for each other and for their positions in life.
The supporting cast is also just as diverse and likable, from Katsa’s tinker of a cousin, to the members of the Council, to the stoically mature Bitterblue. The antagonist of the novel, who I won’t mention by name, is one of the most interesting and truly chilling villains I’ve come across in a long time.
I didn’t give it 5 stars only because I felt some parts of the story were slow and I found myself becoming slightly disinterested during the middle of the book. However, I still felt that it was richer, more engaging and better crafted than any other stand alone book I’ve read in a while. It was clever and I really enjoyed it.
There is a prequel with different characters in the same world available, called “Fire”, which I will be picking up in the near future. I hear there is also a sequel in the works, set 8 years after the events of this book. I honestly can’t wait.