From the author's website: "Graceling, my debut novel, is the story of Katsa, who has been able to kill people with her bare hands since she was eight. Katsa lives in the seven kingdoms, where very occasionally, a person is born with an extreme skill called a Grace. Gracelings are feared and exploited in the seven kingdoms, and none moreso than Katsa, who's expected to do the dirty work of torture and punishment for her uncle, King Randa. But then she meets a mysterious stranger named Po, who is also a Graced fighter and the first person ever to challenge her in a fight. The two form a bond, and each discovers truths they never imagined about themselves, each other, and a terrible danger that is spreading slowly through the seven kingdoms."
This is a hard review for me to write. Instinctively, I loved this book, but after I spent several days thinking about it occasionally, I was able to see that it had many flaws that ruined its perfection for me. And this book did come so close to perfection for me. This is, in fact, a good example of how I can be 'intense' in my love for something. Because it is so good, I pull it apart more than I would a mediocre book.
A Graceling is a human with a special skill or 'grace' that is superhuman. In the world that author builds, Gracelings are feared and respected servants to those in power, and world changing humans in their own rights. I felt that beyond the concept of gracelings, the world building in this book was rather poor. The author has little skill with naming people or places, and does not manage to convey how far each country is from those around it, nor does she explain how Gracelings are kept in check by those they serve. However, I barely noticed this on my first read through due to the author's skillful writing, her deft characterizations, and the strength of the initial graceling concept, which is almost like taking the idea of a superhero and inserting it into a fantasy world.
Katsa, the main character of the book, is very skillfully written. I often dislike the saintly characters that some fantasy heroines can be, and Katsa is not that. She is a confused girl, often sure of her own stupidity or ugliness. She has realistic fears, and realistic confidence in herself. It is a shame that such a well-written character has to deal with Po. Po is, unfortunately, more of a Mary Sue. He's good, thoughtful, loving, accepting, and he believes in the greater good. His grace is amazing and it can defy the ultimate evil. He loves Katsa through and through and only forgives her when she hits him! The only conflict on his part comes much later in the story and felt tacked on. I didn't notice this weakness of character on Po's part until after much thought about the book, which says something of the story.
There are a number of themes that run through this book, including Katsa's genuine dislike of marriage and motherhood (inspired by a society in which men are the kings of the castle literally and figuratively), her rejection of evil authority, the inability to fight against those who are harming that which we love, and her discovery and need to fix the fact that other girls and women are unable to cope with life as she can due to their lack of her 'grace'. And these themes worked for me, so much so that I was literally offended by reviews I saw on Amazon that warned parents that this book advocates against marriage and parenthood. This book does not advocate against marriage. It advocates against a society where women are powerless in marriage. These are greatly different arguments to make. Katsa's disdain of marriage and motherhood do not come without cost to her, and are well realized. When her lover asks about marriage and promises her every freedom within that marriage, she quickly points out that she would always know that she had been given that freedom. It's a beautiful scene due to the fact that she loves the person who has proposed, but cannot give in.
Unfortunately, for all that this theme exists, Po is the catalyst to most of Katsa's actions. Why does Katsa do what she does? Because of Po. He asks her the right questions or springs to mind at all the right times so that Katsa can do good. At one critical scene, Katsa knows that to save the world, she must leave Po, and she literally cannot do it until he forces her to. And once she does, she is always reminding herself that she left him and now she cannot fail him. This seems to weaken the themes I felt the author was trying to promote.
Ultimately, however, I still loved this book. It's an excellent young adult fantasy, and an outstanding debut. Katsa stands head and shoulders above most heroines, and, in the end, she makes a choice I respect. I can't wait to read more books by this author.
Verdict: 8. I added it to my "for keeps" wishlist right after reading the library book I got.
Thoughts: Seriously, the country and character names... they lack a certain something. Po? Bitterblue? West? East?