This fantasy book is the first in the "Graceling" series by Kristin Cashore and is published by Graphia, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Graceling is written for kids ages 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
In Katsa’s world, people with two different-colored eyes are called Gracelings. They may be Graced with the ability to read minds, to cook, to be storytellers or any combination of other skills. Katsa was 8 when a cousin tried to touch her inappropriately. She killed him. Since then, her uncle and guardian (King Randa of the Middluns) has deemed her his Graceling killer. He’s trained her and sent her to maim or murder his enemies. Though Katsa hates killing, she believes it is her Grace and, therefore, her lot in life.
Attempting to use her skills for good, the teenage Katsa has formed a covert vigilante group called the Council. They right the wrongs perpetrated by the land’s seven kings. She and two friends are in the midst of rescuing the Lienid king’s kidnapped father when Katsa encounters another man of Lienid descent in the courtyard. He is clearly Graced with fighting skills like Katsa, but she is able to knock him unconscious. She worries that his having seen her will endanger the Council’s missions.
The Lienid man appears at King Randa’s palace a few days later. Katsa learns he is Prince Po of Lienid, grandson of the man the Council rescued. He and Katsa engage in hand-to-hand combat and both enjoy the unusual experience of competing with someone worthy of their skills. Katsa takes Po to his unconscious grandfather, whom she’s hidden in the palace. Po decides to stay in the kingdom to monitor his grandfather’s healing and see if the old man can remember who kidnapped him. Katsa and her Council allies cover for Po, claiming he’s staying around to practice combat with Katsa.
Po and Katsa fight one another often and develop a friendship. Po convinces Katsa she has the power to refuse King Randa when her uncle commands her to kill. Katsa tells Randa that she’ll no longer be his thug and leaves with Po in search of his grandfather’s kidnapper. As they travel together, they fall in love. But Katsa has vowed she will never marry or have children. Po suggests they just be lovers, and she decides this will allow her to maintain her freedom. Po helps her realize that her true Grace isn’t killing, but survival. It isn’t taking life, but preserving it.
Po and Katsa begin to suspect that King Leck of Monsea, known for his kindness to the weak and to animals, may be a fraud and Grandfather’s kidnapper. They believe he has a Grace that allows him to deceive people and control their thoughts. Po and Katsa rescue his 10-year-old daughter, Bitterblue, who details his cruelty and lies, after they witness him murdering his wife in the forest. To get Bitterblue to safety, they face injury, difficult decisions and a treacherous mountain pass. When they arrive back in Lienid, they find that Leck has confused the minds of Po’s royal relatives. Katsa kills Leck, breaking the spell and making Bitterblue queen of Monsea.
In the end, Po’s injuries result in blindness. Katsa stays with him to help him recover from his depression and rediscover the power of his Grace. They decide to ignore the friends and family who urge them to marry and continue to live happily in the woods as lovers.
Many of the land’s kings are hotheaded, money-hungry, overly ambitious and unkind to their subjects. King Leck tortures the weak for sport. His wife and Bitterblue escape from the castle when they learn of his desire to torture his own daughter. Katsa’s uncle, King Randa, uses Katsa as his assassin from the time she’s 10. He makes her kill or torture the subjects who disobey him, and he shows her off at his parties to intimidate his guests. Katsa doesn’t remember her parents, who both died when she was very young. Katsa admires the captain of her ship to Lienid for being a strong, commanding female.
Katsa says it was a stroke of luck that no one discovered their plot to rescue Po’s grandfather. Part of Po’s Grace allows him to read Katsa’s thoughts about him. She often "talks" to him telepathically.
In her mind, Katsa calls someone a horse’s a--. Katsa kills a number of people, either because Randa commands it or to protect Bitterblue. She also kills many animals for food or pelts. None of these scenes are particularly graphic. Bitterblue says her father, King Leck, hit her mother and liked to cause pain. He would cut animals and young girls with knives and keep them alive for a long time. After the queen and Bitterblue locked themselves away from him, Leck began intimidating them by delivering cut up mice and crying, bleeding cats and dogs. He even sent in a young servant girl with bleeding cuts who "wasn’t walking well."
Bitterblue and Katsa’s male friend Raffin both kiss Katsa in a friendly manner. A nursemaid named Helda offers her services to Katsa, concerned that since the girl has no females in her life, no one has told her of a "woman’s bleedings" or about male/female relationships. Helda wants Katsa to find a husband and sometimes dresses the girl in clothes that don’t entirely cover her breasts. When Po yells through the door into her room, Katsa teases him saying he may be revealing himself to a legion of her lovers. After Katsa and Po admit their mutual feelings, Katsa reiterates that she’ll never marry. Po says he won’t ask that of her, so Katsa ponders whether she could be his lover but "still belong to herself." When Katsa and Po do become lovers, they kiss and explore each other’s bodies in several scenes. The initial love scene describes the physical pain — and simultaneous joy — Katsa feels as she loses her virginity. Katsa regularly takes an herb called sebane that keeps her from getting pregnant. Though Katsa and Po’s friends and family think they should marry, Katsa says she’s not going to hang on to Po "like a barnacle," and Po says it’s OK if others don’t understand their romantic arrangement.
A Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, 2008; A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, 2008; Booklist Editor’s Choice Award, 2008 and others
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
Substance use: Katsa knocks out and drugs a group of soldiers so she can disable them without killing them. While traveling with Po, she takes an herb to prevent pregnancy.
Lying: Po initially doesn’t reveal the full extent of his Grace to Katsa. He is afraid of how people will respond to him if they know he can read their thoughts. After allowing herself to trust him, Katsa is devastated by this information and feels his misrepresentation of his Grace is the same as if he’d lied to her. Katsa and her Council allies lie about their activities so they can undertake life-saving missions. Po, Katsa and Bitterblue lie as they travel undercover to save Bitterblue from her father.
Feminist Ideology: Many of the book’s male characters, especially those in positions of power, are ruthless and disrespectful, particularly to women. Female characters fall into one of two categories: They are either strong, powerful women or weak females who serve as cautionary tales, showing the reader why women must learn to defend themselves against men. Even in the more equally matched relationship between Po and Katsa, the female conveys her strength and power by refusing to commit to marriage or traditional ideologies of home and family.
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