by Kristin Cashore
In the fantasy world where this tale takes place, it's easy to tell when someone is "Graced" with a special ability. It's their eyes that give them away: the left eye a different color from the right. One such graceling is Katsa, niece of one of the seven kings who rule the seven kingdoms. Her grace was first revealed when, at the age of eight, she killed a man with a flick of her hand. Since then, her uncle has used her as his personal enforcer. He sends her to break arms, cut off fingers, and sometimes do worse things to those who have fallen from favor. But secretly, Katsa has started a Council of good-doers, dedicated to holding the line against the madness of the kings.
One of Katsa's missions for the Council takes her to the dungeons of a neighboring kingdom, where she rescues the kidnapped father of yet another king. The question of why this sickly, powerless prince should be kidnapped, and by whom, draws Katsa into an adventure that will test her will and her heart. For she will find friendship and even love in unexpected places, discover surprising things about herself and her grace, brave unbelievable hardships, and face an enemy more dangerous than you can probably imagine.
First, Katsa meets another graced fighter, a Prince named Greening Grandemalion, otherwise known as Po. They both learn that their grace was not what they thought it was. Po challenges Katsa to change her mind about what matters most deeply. Then she is joined by a vulnerable girl named Bitterblue in a desperate chase across alpine heights and billowing seas. Their adventure comes to a gripping, scary-fairy-tale climax, then continues with an unexpectedly long and rich resolution of more intimate issues between Katsa and Po.
From what I have already said, you may already perceive that this story is not structured like a typical fairy tale. The story continues surprisingly long after the main crisis has passed. Yet it doesn't give a reader the urge to sniff: "Will this flipping book never end?" Perhaps that's because it's more of a case of the story having two crises to get over, rather than one crisis followed by an awful lot of wrapping-up. The second crisis--the more personal, character-driven one--is just as compelling as the one with the gosh-wow fantasy concept tied into it. On the other hand, it doesn't come to a predictable resolution.
And here we come to the point where this book really veers out of the folklore template. It's hard to explain what I mean without spoiling the story for you. To put it in very general terms, the romantic tension between the two lead characters doesn't find quite the release you would expect. Some readers will probably think it's mindblowingly original and ahead of its time. Many will enjoy it out of sheer titillation. But some readers, perhaps, may be challenged to think about the role traditional values of right and wrong play in making fairy stories meaningful. I, for one, was looking for a different outcome to the Katsa-Po storyline, and I personally feel the author erred in the choice she made. But apart from that, her book is a pleasure to read; and there are few, if any, perfect pleasures. We must bear with the imperfections gladly!
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 14+
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