Review Detail4.0 38
Once I got past the point of thinking 'Katniss' every time I read 'Katsa', the book settled into a journey-based light fantasy with variable pacing. Though the worldbuilding gives off a distinctly euro-medieval feel, the “magic” elements are fairly original and the premise is intriguing.
Graceling takes place in a multi-climate world comprised of seven Kingdoms. Among the primary plot points is the fact that a small, undetermined number of people amid the population have a wide array of exceptional abilities that can range from cooking to fighting, marked by some form of Heterochromia iridis (i.e. possessing eyes that are of a distinctly different color from each other.) These special individuals are referred to as “Gracelings” and are typically claimed by their region’s king, unless they turn out to have a grace that proves useless to their Lord (i.e. a Graceling in a dessert kingdom with a Grace for swimming, etc.)
The story is written in third-person limited, exclusively from the POV of a young Graceling woman called Katsa. The orphaned niece of a petty and cruel king, Katsa’s Grace is unmatched in terms of her capacity to fight and kill. As such, her uncle has spent years using her as his own personal torturer, enforcer, and assassin. But Katsa’s conscience has gradually led her to defy him—if only in minor ways—and she forms a sort of do-gooder council in secret, hoping to right a few wrongs done by some of the more tyrannical kings across the land. It’s on a council mission to rescue a kidnapped old man that she encounters a far-reaching mystery, along with a handsome Graceling fighter, and her quiet path of resistance is pushed to a point of no return.
Katsa is what we used to refer to in the text-based gaming world as: 'Twinky.' ( i.e. All of her stats are ridiculously high.) She is abnormally good at -everything-, outside of empathy, to the point where readers may not see much reason to be concerned for her. Beyond that, Katsa can be difficult to sympathize with up until the final 1/4th of the book when Bitterblue comes into play and she is forced to put the child before her own goals (although, granted, her long-term wants and goals beyond “freedom” are never really explored.)
While this reader always appreciates a strong female lead, this story’s heroine managed to come off as too much of a good thing. This one is bullheaded, quick-tempered, and is consistently unfeeling—bordering on abusive—in her treatment toward horses. Katsa also goes well beyond the title of Tomboy—showing a pervasive and judgmental contempt for femininity in any and all forms. She is never once concerned about her appearance, not even in regards to her love-interest, and openly looks down on women who aren’t enough like her (i.e. stubbornly aggressive and romantically non-committal.) If this were simply her starting point, that would be believable—plenty of room to grow. But outside of increasing self-confidence, she shows precious little character development by the end of the tale.
(There is, however, a fair amount of character growth in Po (the sweet, lovesick martyr), with the most extensive evolution shown in Bitterblue—despite how little of the book she’s actually featured in.)
Just to be clear, I don’t personally have a problem with a heroine whose preference is to never marry or bear children. But when the established world marks this decision as highly unusual, a degree of justification would be a courtesy to the reader (along with a way to belay concerns over author intrusion.) Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything compelling in Katsa’s limited backstory that aided in rationalizing her militant hostility toward either concept. She has little memory of her parents, and there’s no account of them having a negative or abusive relationship. Her eventual bonding with Bitterblue doesn’t cause her to even momentarily reconsider her stance on procreating. It felt as though her organic development as a character was forced into a contrived mold.
One noteworthy drawback to the worldbuilding involves the fact that the story is meticulously sterile of religion. No belief systems are mentioned; no symbology, no architectural or artistic influence, no point of morality guidance... not even swearing. (They swear on their kingdoms.) While this admittedly makes the work a simpler and quicker read (and likely a safer bet to mass-market), it also feels a bit like a painting that’s missing a color. In addition there is, sadly, no origin lore offered and no speculation on the cause of gracelings (hereditary, ethnic, environmental, magical, or otherwise.) This may be addressed in future books, of course...
Content Note: To those young adults and parents to whom it may concern, this book does contain several sex scenes—though they are not graphically described and it at least makes some reference to a form of herbal birth control. The first (and longest) sex scene occurs in the middle of the book, almost immediately after the hero and heroine’s first kiss. Some may not care for how this breaks the romantic tension, if they don’t outright object to the message it seems to be sending its intended audience.
What stands even more on the unusual side is the heroine’s doggedly ambiguous status toward the hero—her unexplained disdain toward marriage and insistence on being free to leave him at any time. (Rather than female-empowering, this unfortunately comes off as an effort to glorify relational instability in a manner that wouldn’t be well received or admirable were the stances of the hero and heroine reversed.) As a result, I regret this one doesn’t earn the goddaughter-approved recommendation.