Katsa is a Graceling. This means that she’s got the gift of having one perfect, otherworldly skill. Some are Graced with the ability to read minds. Others have the ability to sense storms. Some are really awesome tree climbers. Katsa’s Grace, however, isn’t that lighthearted. She’s been Graced with the ability to kill. Her uncle, the vain King Randa, has made her his thug. He uses her abilities to keep people who defy him in check — regardless of whether or not they deserve Katsa’s unique attention.
Katsa hates her life. Her uncle constantly reminds her that to him, she’s nothing but a hunting dog, a dangerous wild animal whose Grace has made her less than human. Stories of her brutality have spread all across the land — as have stories of the suffering of the common folk, who labor under the burden of vainglorious kings. Katsa, and her deadly Grace, can save them. She creates a Council, a loosely organized network of noblemen, innkeepers, peasants, and others. This Council organizes strikes against oppressive governments, and rescues those who have been menaced by their rulers.
You intrigued? Because that’s just the background, not the actual plot. I haven’t even told you that yet.
Even after Katsa’s created the Council, she still feels herself to be alone. She refuses to marry (which I like — she also knows the herbs necessary to stay baby-free! ) and is only really close to her cousin Raffin, Randa’s healer of a son, and Oll, the man who trained her. That is, until she meets Po, another Graceling with a power able to strike fear in the hearts of those he holds dear. Together, Po and Katsa unravel a mystery threatening the very fabric of the seven kingdoms. Along the way, Katsa learns that there’s more to her gift than murder.
I really loved this book. First — at its heart it’s a travel story centered on a female character’s coming of age. That’s a danggone rarity in fantasy. Secondly, it features two female characters overcoming psychological trauma inflicted upon them as part of the baggage associated with growing up in a patriarchal society. Some of the ad-copy described Katsa as “half-wild” — I’d actually describe her as painfully sane in a world where women are penalized for that. At the same time, Captain Faun, the Queen of Liened, Helda, and Ashen all emerge as vital, capable women able to resist and subvert authority in a variety of ways. Plus, a few of the male characters also work to subvert dominant social structures. Raffin and Bann are both gentle healers, and have an unusually close friendship. Po is a loving, empathic son.
I’d very eagerly recommend this to a teen/tween reader. Heck, I’m almost thirty, and I was amazed at the tightness of the narratives, the subtle reiteration of particular motifs, and the evolving language used as Katsa began to think of herself as more human. This is categorized as being a young adult book, but seriously? It’s just quality. This book ignores the marriage mandate, discusses multiple kinds of love, has a kick-ass heroine with a commitment to social justice, and features an awesome, awesome friendship between two lonely girls. I am sad I have to return this to the library.