Reading this was like eating M&Ms. Stopping was very hard. I began it one evening at 8pm. I finally forced myself to go to bed at 10pm. I had read about 200 pages. The prose is just that easy to read.
This secondary world of Cashore’s isn’t a place where magic happens. It is, though, a place where some people are born Graced: they have a skill, or a thing, that they are superbly, unbeatably, good at. You might be a Graced chef, or a Graced archer; be Graced with mind-reading, some sort of prescience, or being able to eat rocks. I was about to write that I would like to be Graced with memory, but then I remembered the books I’ve read where characters never forget anything and I realise that would be appalling. Perhaps I would like to be Graced with pastry-making. Or with patience. Perhaps pattern recognition.
Anyway, you can tell someone is Graced before they act because they have eyes of different colours. Sometimes this happens as soon as the baby is born; sometimes it takes months, even years, for the eye-colour to settle in. In most parts of the Seven Kingdoms, those who are Graced are automatically feared, and become the property of the King. When you are already the king’s niece and your Grace is fighting… well, Katsa was screwed from the moment she threw her first punch as an under-ten. She’s been fighting for, and being a one-person bully gang in aid of, her uncle for a long time now. But she’s starting to try working around and under the king – helping out people where she can – and this has to come to a head at some point.
The story is a quest for knowledge and for self-identity. Katsa’s age is unclear – she’s certainly late teens if not 20s – and it’s not quite a coming-of-age; she’s cynical and knows about the world already. But while embarking on a quest to help a friend discover the truth about a family member, she definitely learns more about herself and how to be in the world. This search for identity is a current through the whole story, but it’s not overwhelmingly dominant; there are some reflective moments, but there are a lot of moments of action too, for readers like me who usually prefer that sort of story. And the actual quest means that Cashore gets to introduce us to bits of the Seven Kingdoms, which is always fun. I enjoyed the developing friendship between Katsa and Po, I liked the secondary characters, I liked that there were a few plot twists and that while it’s not a light and breezy story, it’s also not grim and gloomy (I have no problem with either, I just like that this one was at the lighter end).
There are a few failings. The ten-year-old is unbelievable enough that I thought she was going to end up being Graced with something that made her wiser than her years. Some of the secondary characters, especially Katsa’s cousin, could have withstood a bit more character development. Over on Goodreads I briefly saw two complaints. One is that it’s an enjoyable book except for the “raging feminist agenda.” I am bewildered by this. Is it a raging feminist agenda to have a supremely competent female lead, to suggest a woman can be a monarch, to not have a female character desperate to get married, to allow characters sex before marriage, to have female characters who don’t care that much about clothes? If so, AWESOME I WANT MORE. Me, I just see that as, y’know, reflecting the real world. The other complaint is about the romance – spoiler! There is one! (If you didn’t know that, you could read the cover quote which claims it has “a knee-weakening romance that easily rivals that of Twilight” … Thanks, LA Times. I have nothing to say.) That reviewer, I think, has an interesting point to make which is that (SLIGHT SPOILER HERE) Katsa’s refusal to consider marrying Po means that what they have isn’t really love, because love is meant to be sacrificial. She is NOT saying they ought to just get married – at least as far as I understand it (here, read it yourself - it’s the one written by Miss Clark). However, while I see her point, I think I disagree. I think Katsa is willing to be with Po forever, and that especially at this point it’s not not-love for her to be keeping her options open, and being wary. Or maybe I’m just too dewy-eyed.
There are two other books in the not-quite-series, but I don’t think I will hurry to get either. While I loved this book, it’s the writing and the characters that I adored. I’m not so fussed about other people in the world and their carryings-on.
(Another books from the stash of unread books, busted!)
You can get Graceling from Fishpond.