This is the first of what will probably be a series of fantasy novels (the sequel, Fire, is already out in paperback), and is an interesting beginning. The novel is set in a land where certain people, distinguished by their differently-coloured eyes, are Graced with certain talents – cookery, for example, or archery – which give them more than normal ability in these areas. The Graced are, however, given up to the kings of the Seven Kingdoms, and are taken in to the king’s service. If the grace is useful to him, all well and good, but if not, the graceling is returned home, generally to fear and avoidance.
The protagonist is called Katsa, who, it appears, is Graced with the ability to kill. As a result, her uncle the king uses her as a hired assassin or to threaten those whom the king wishes to cow. Despite this ability, Katsa dislikes killing, and has, before the story opens, formed The Council with some like-minded friends, to help ordinary people avoid the depredations of the kings, who don’t care much for their own people.
Katsa and two friends rescue the father of the queen of one of the kingdoms, and endeavour to find out why he had been kidnapped, and for whom. During the rescue, she meets and disarms a Graced young man who later reveals himself to be King Ror’s youngest son (rather improbably nicknamed Po, which for this reader evoked a teletubby rather than a handsome young man). Po and Katsa become friends, and he gives her the courage to leave her home and her unpleasant uncle, refusing to do his dirty work any longer, and they try to find out the reason for the kidnapping of Po’s grandfather.
The book has a fairly simple plot, but the settings are beautifully described, and the gradual deepening of the relationship between Katsa and Po is well done. The second part of the book, the rescue of Princess Bitterblue, is tense and gripping; Katsa’s struggles to carry the young girl through snowladen mountain passes is fiercely and icily written, and their difficulties are not glossed over. It’s here that Katsa begins to question the nature of her Grace, and begins to reason that it might be for survival, rather than for killing.
While the setting, and even the idea of Graces (similar to X-Men’s mutant powers, for example) are not particularly novel, Cashore describes the loneliness of the Graced well, and the dawning horror of King Leck’s own Grace is just as horrifying for the reader as it is for the characters who discover it. If there’s one quibble I had it’s with the names, which are peculiar and often distracting, even for the fantasy genre.