It was hard to start writing this review, for two reasons. First, it meant that I had to stop pressing Graceling to my heart and thinking wistfully about the Land of Seven Kingdoms and Katsa and Po and their remarkable story. (But considering I finished reading it several hours ago, I suppose that was the only healthy thing to do). Second, it meant that I had to try to communicate why it is already one of my favourite books. This will not be easy, because all I really feel like doing is gushing, and then gushing some more. So prepare yourselves for some serious enthusiasm people.
This is Kristin Cashore’s debut novel, a fact which is very difficult to believe. Her tale is so well crafted – impeccably plotted, with complex, consistent characterization – that you’ll know by the end of the first page that you are in the hands of a seriously gifted storyteller. Graceling is set in the Land of Seven Kingdoms, a place with seven kings as diverse as the landscapes they govern. King Randa rules the Middluns, and he also commands his niece Katsa, who has been gifted since a young age with the ability to kill a man with little more than her bare hands. Randa gets Katsa to do his dirty work for him, and she travels the kingdoms to force his enemies to pay up, or to remind them in the most physical sense to respect their king. Katsa is no ordinary fighter. Her ability is an extreme talent, known in this society as a “grace.” This makes Katsa a Graceling, and she is an almost unstoppable force. That is, until the day she meets a prince named Po, who possesses a Grace that she cannot ignore or trust. Circumstances bring these two together on a journey that will lead them to better understand and wield their own powers, and to depend upon each other’s graces in the face of a terrifying foe.
Here we have, all tied up in a tidy near-500 page package, adventure that never stops, a journey into dangerous lands, unexpected romance, extreme sacrifice, and a super-creepy bad guy to beat all bad guys. I am not exaggerating when I say that at the most dramatic moments in this story, my heart was actually racing. (A small part of this effect might have been due to the shocking quanitites of coffee I was consuming at my local espresso bar in order to hang onto the cosy, sunny window spot I scored this morning). I can’t remember the last time I was so wrapped up in a story that I literally could not stop reading. I had to know how it was going to end, and the closer I got to the final chapters, the less I could predict what would happen next. I read a lot of books. I’m pretty good at seeing things coming. I will say that there is a gasp-worthy moment very close to the finish.
As much as this is a fantasy world, with evil kings, and princes and princesses, and people gifted with magical abilities, the heroine is a young woman who struggles to create herself, to manage her strengths and weaknesses and to take steps towards her chosen future – all very real life challenges. That’s probably one reason why you care so much about what happens to Katsa and those she fights to protect. Then there’s the romance. Kristin Cashore handles the romantic element of her story with delicacy – there’s innocence and uncertainty and there’s some serious sexiness too (but nothing overly racy). There is nothing that is not delicious about this book. There. I’ve said it. It’s perfectly perfect.
Fans of Shannon Hale and Tamora Pierce (and everyone else besides) will be cheering for Katsa. By the time you’re finished Graceling, you’ll be desperate for the prequel, which is scheduled to be released in 2009. You’ll also be certain that Kristin Cashore is graced herself. I don’t think there will be much debate about that.
Graceling is published by Harcourt. Tune in in a few weeks when I’ll be interviewing Kristin right here.