Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug.
She never expects to fall in love with beautiful Prince Po.
She never expects to learn the truth behind her Grace—or the terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.
Warnings: graphic violence, exposure and harsh survival conditions, implied child sexual abuse, manipulation and (magical) gaslighting
In the seven kingdoms, certain children are born with Graces (basically superpowers) that manifest when they are young; Katsa’s Grace for Killing meant that she accidentally kills one of her (pervy) uncles in her childhood. She is then made to be the muscle for her uncle, the King Randa, of the Middluns, and basically does all his dirty work for him, like threatening lords and people who defy him. She doesn’t hesitate in her job, because she can’t dream of defying the King, but she and her friends and allies at court (which includes her cousin, Raffin, the prince), covertly have formed a Council that works to bring down corrupt aristocrats, and help the people Randa bullies. On one such mission when one of the other kings seems to have a Prince of Lienid kidnapped, she rescues the latter, and also crosses path with his grandson, Po, who has been investigating his grandfather’s disappearance.
Po (his real name is Greening something something) becomes her friend and an ally to the Council, and they, too, start to investigate why his grandfather was a target. Meanwhile, Po, who is also a Graced fighter, is a good training partner for Katsa, and the two of them get closer; he also encourages her to break out of her uncle’s hold, and come with him as they go to the other kingdoms hunting for clues. Their search leads to a bigger problem in Monsea, where something seems fishy about that King’s squeaky clean reputation. They end up having to rescue the princess of Monsea, Bitterblue, a 10 year old girl, and keep her from her father’s reach. The way out of Monsea is treacherous, however, and with the mountains their only way out, and winter approaching, they are in bind. At this point, the novel becomes more survival-themed, as Katsa strains her Grace to its limits to find a passage out of the mountains, and we also delve deeper into Po’s and Katsa’s Graces which are developing.
The world-building is good enough, and the writing flows well to develop the terrain in this action-adventure, as well as develop the characters’ arcs. Katsa, who is Lady but is treated more like a monster, finds her sense of justice, and the will to break from another’s control. This particular aspect also affects the way their romance develops – Katsa has decided she would never marry, so that she wouldn’t ever have to cede control to another man, and even while Po is sweet and would never cage her, she is determined in establishing that boundary of her relationship with him until the end, which I appreciated. The third person narrative feels a bit unusual (I really would have loved it in first-person, to be honest) and the dialogue is very medieval fantasy and didn’t always keep me engaged. The plot and stakes are excellent, with the Big Bad being quite a difficult opponent, and it has a satisfying ending, which overall makes for a highly entertaining book.