In Katsa’s world, some people are born with extreme skills, called Graces. But instead of being admired for these gifts, they are feared and exploited. Gracelings are recognized by having two differently colored eyes.
Since the age of eight, Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands: she is Graced with killing. She is forced to work as her uncle King Randa’s thug, bullying, punishing and occasionally assassinating his enemies. Everyone believes her to be a vicious assassin, as bloodthirsty as she is cruel. Throughout the Seven Kingdoms they call her “Randa’s Dog.” Katsa hates being under Randa’s command, but knows that if she disobeys or tries to escape he will hunt her down and kill her. The only thing that brings her comfort is the secret Council she and a few trusted advisors have formed to bring aid to anyone being wronged by corrupt kings across the Seven Kingdoms.
When Prince Po arrives in court one day, Katsa’s world is turned upside down. Po is Graced with fighting, and is the first person who has been able to match Katsa in battle. Soon, the two become friends, and Po inspires Katsa to break free from Randa’s control and make her own destiny. She stands up to the King, and the two of them leave Randa’s court, bound for Monsea, where King Leck is causing strange rumors. Po suspects that the one-eyed King is secretly Graced, but no one believes the strange and horrible stories about him. Po and Katsa hope that if they can contact Princess Bitterblue, Leck’s daughter and Po’s cousin, she might be able to tell them the truth about her father.
I really enjoyed this book. The plot is very fast-moving, despite the fact that much of the action is spent travelling from one destination to another. Many of the conversations and plot points occur in transit; I thought this was a very interesting way of moving characters from one physical point to another without losing plot momentum. The fight scenes are pumped full of action verbs, and there were times when I almost felt breathless after reading about Katsa and Po sparring together.
Katsa was a very interesting heroine, although there were times when I questioned some of her decisions or actions. She’s very flexible in some areas while being completely inflexible in others. She is very strong, both mentally and physically, but there were times when I felt she could have been more vulnerable. Katsa is most relatable in dealing with Po’s young cousin, Bitterblue; she lets her guard down and opens up to the girl, who reminds her of her younger self.
I really loved Po’s character. With his metallic eyes–one silver and one gold–and his rakish good looks, Po is full of humor and adventure. He makes a nice counterpoint to Katsa’s somewhat stiff and serious personality, and their banter and eventually friendship grew nicely out of that contrast. But Po is also multi-faceted, and as the story progresses we get to see many layers of his personality, including strength in the face of tragedy and a willingness to sacrifice himself for others.
Cashore’s writing is beautiful and layered, each sentence flowing elegantly from one to the next. Her plotting is exemplary as well, full of twists and unexpected turns. Many of the twists completely surprised me, but when I looked back I could see where Cashore had gently foreshadowed everything that was going to happen. This novel satisfied almost all of my reading requirements, and I would definitely look for and read more of her novels in the future.