This is definitely one of those “in a world where” books, and I liked the initial concept. Katsa lives in a world where a few people, known as Gracelings, are born with varied special powers or abilities. These Gracelings are recognized by their specially-colored eyes, and in most countries become the personal property of the king in order for him to take advantage of their special skills. Katsa is Graced with an unusual and unwanted power — the ability to kill. Feeling guilty because of the way the small-minded king forces her to use her power for his own selfish ends, Katsa starts an organization of people who help her to address injustices which surface around the realm…which eventually leads her to become embroiled in a mysterious crime, masterminded by a very nasty villain.
As I said, I did think the worldbuilding concept here was an interesting one. Having a main character who was gifted with the ability to do violence was also an interesting (if a bit daring) idea. I have to admit, though, that I was not entirely convinced by the portrayal of Katsa. I can’t help but think that someone who’s been a professional torturer/assassin since the age of 10 would be a little more psychologically disturbed at age 18. Yeah, Katsa has some anger management issues, and she’s not too happy with her life, but seriously. I think she’d be a bit more messed up. (Of course, if the book were at all realistic in its treatment of this conceit, then it probably wouldn’t be YA anymore…)
I also must admit that I was really ticked off by this book’s attitude toward marriage and sex. Katsa falls in love with a very nice young prince (of course) who wants to marry her. She, however, refuses. She doesn’t want to get married because she doesn’t want to ‘tie herself down’ to anyone — she wants to be Miss Independent, and can’t trust any man enough to get married. However, she has an explicit epiphany as the story progresses: she realizes that she can still have sex without giving up her independence and languishing in restrictive marriage for the rest of her life! Which she proceeds, of course, to do. Which solves all of her relationship problems. Can I just say I was not impressed? If you can’t bring yourself to trust the person you love enough to marry him, why would you have sex with him without requiring any commitment from him? I did not appreciate the book’s declaration — blunt to the point of preachy — that marriage = bad, sex = good, so skip the former and go for the latter.
Generally speaking, Cashore’s writing is fairly good. Her worldbuilding is pretty simplistic in the manner of YA fantasists everywhere, but her narrative style is engaging and occasionally her turns of phrase are rather nice. If it hadn’t been for her putting the spotlight on a teenaged character’s conscious choice of no-strings sex as a delightful substitute for marriage, I would have appreciated the book a lot more.
Content note: The sex scenes are at least very much not explicit.