Author: Kristin Cashore
Themes: Self-determination, Oppression, Hero's Quest
Age Range: 9th Grade and Up
Summary: (from Goodreads)
In a world where people born with an extreme skill—called a Grace—are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing seland torturing anyone who displeases him.
When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.
She never expects to become Po's friend.
She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away...a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone
I'm a fantasy reader from way back, so I fully expected to enjoy this book, which every other reviewer I've read has loved, and which has on Illinois' Abraham Lincoln list of best books for young adults. What I didn't expect was it to feel so fresh. Like I said, I've read a lot of fantasy-it can be hard to bring something truly new to the plot or story structure that I haven't read somewhere before. But despite some very familiar fantasy elements (people gifted with special powers, kings and queens and princes), Cashore did manage to create a world that is distinct.
The story moves at a good pace, and though explaining the Grace and Gracelings require some exposition, there is enough action interspersed to keep the reader engaged. But what really made this book for me Katsa-her strength and determination definitely come through, and despite her feelings of self-hatred as a result of her special skill, she is trying so hard to be a moral person, and it is that struggle that made her so interesting to me. Much of the book deals with the responsibility to wield power to help and not hurt, to be honest and not manipulate others, to do what is best not just for yourself but for others as well. And despite the love story subplot, this is not a romance at all. Not even romantic, really, since so much of our ideas of romance come from an uneven power dynamic between the lovers. Katsa and Po are evenly matched, if not skill for skill, in their overall personalities. They complement each other in a way that doesn't diminish either, and I found that refreshing. The book highlights the intersection of power and morality in a way that I think is very accessible to the younger reader. Katsa is a hero that all young girls should read. Deeply flawed, but striving every day to be better; strong without being cruel; full of self-doubt, but not paralyzed by it.