Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Some debut novels feel like a first effort; they stretch their wings a bit, wobble a tad until they find their groove. But some debut novels burst out with such a sure hand that you are instantly swept into the story and only handed back your consciousness when you've finished the ride. This is one of those books -- a great book. Once I started it, I could. not. put. it. down.

Katsa is a graceling, a person with eyes of two different colors, denoting some special skill or "grace" that is an integral part of her nature. All gracelings become the property of their kings, sent home only if their grace serves no useful purpose. What a person's grace is is not always immediately clear, but after a frightening incident when she was 8, Katsa's grace seems to be killing. Naturally, she is now of great use to her uncle, the king.

She is trained and she is dispatched to and fro across the kingdom, enforcing her uncle's edicts, underscoring his displeasure, punishing his enemies -- or perhaps just those who annoy him. This is her life. And graced as she is with the ability to bring death, she seems powerless to change her situation.

Enter Prince Po, the seventh son of the Lienid king. He, too, is a graceling, but his home is one in which gracelings are free citizens, not merely the tools of their king. Graced with fighting, his personality, his presence, is a revelation to Katsa and causes her to reinterpret her role as king's enforcer.

Their story begins with the kidnapping of the Leinid king's father. Who took him? Why? Katsa finds herself in the midst of a quest for answers and when she finds them, she realizes that the fate of all the kingdoms hangs in the balance,

This book is a compelling read -- fast, but not insanely so; full of action, but also thoughtful. Both Katsa and Po must grow into their graces, both literally and emotionally. Katsa in particular must find a way to come to terms with her grace, perhaps even reinterpret it entirely.

I was surprised to find this book listed as a children's book, recommended for ages 8th grade and up. Here's why I think this is maybe a high school book (perhaps for seniors), but probably really more for adults:

SPOILER ALERT (don't read farther if you don't want to know some critical stuff):

Because of her relationship with her uncle, which is that of master-servant, Katsa decides never to marry; she doesn't want anyone to have power over her again. She does not reconsider this position, even when she and Po fall in love. She makes clear to him that she will not be his wife, but she will be his lover. They sleep together, and while this is not described explicitly, they obviously enjoy their sexual relationship. They leave their relationship open-ended -- perhaps they will stay together forever, perhaps not. I rather think they will stay together, especially in light of the book's ending and the way in which they remain committed to each other in spite of the changes in their graces, their political situations, and their physical health. But the escape-hatch mentality is central to Katsa's being.

Katsa and Po are in their 20s, so it's perhaps to be expected that they aren't going to keep their relationship platonic -- precisely why I think this book is really more for adults. Their decisions about their romantic and sexual lives are those of adults, but they're being presented to kids. These are not the attitudes I want my children to develop about love and sex and marriage.

There's quite a bit of violence in the book. It's not overly gory, not even particularly visceral, but Katsa kills and tortures people for her uncle, so much of what she does is fairly unpleasant. Her own unhappiness about this underscores the gruesomeness of her job. Then, too, there's King Leck, whose sadistic love of hurting young girls is not for the faint of heart. That scenario alone makes this for older kids -- high school at least.

In spite of this, I can't stress enough how much I liked this book. I felt for Katsa, whose ability was subjugated to someone else's will. I liked Po and the way he pulled Katsa out of herself. And I loved the mystery they solved together, only to discover that the solution presented a far more deadly problem than either of them realized.

A great book, just a little mistargeted in terms of audience.

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