Not a traditional reader of YA, but a lover of fantasy, had me plopping this book onto my hold list at the library. Honestly, I did that so long ago that I had forgotten what book I had put on hold when they called to tell me it was available. Before I prematurely begin my opinion of it let us start with synopsis:
Katsa is Graced and indeed a thug, however reluctant she is to do this job. Being Graced means she is ostracized from her people. The world does not accept the gifted readily never mind those whose gift it is to be so completely lethal with so little effort. The notion of power over one’s actions and subservience to another are addressed in the story as her growing conscience begins to demand her own rebellion from the King. While women are relegated to traditional roles in her world Katsa’s gifts keeps her at least partially in the world of men. Expectations of marrying and bringing men heirs are still upon her even though it is clear she shrugs these notions aside. Her work is where she finds value for herself. Not the orders of the king, but in a secret council comprised of mere citizens across the seven kingdoms in her land who act in people’s interests. This is a way Katsa keeps her humanity amidst being ordered to mete out excessive punishments upon the citizens of her kingdom.
Prince Po is also Graced, a fighter she took on while in the middle of a mission for her council, and eventually becomes her friend. They begin a quest together, one that becomes more dangerous than they anticipate as well as evolves into something far more. In his kingdom the gifted are revered and treasured; no shame is to be had from this birthright. As a result of this he does not fear Katsa, but embraces and appreciates her attributes while encouraging her to do the same. Each day of their travels to a far off land, one in which they expect to find the reasons for a mysterious kidnapping, they become closer and eventually become lovers.
When they reach their destination answers are found and the reasons behind rumors and strange actions of a King are revealed they find that victory is all but impossible. Katsa’s Grace is useless while the truth of Po’s keeps the stakes high and the chance of victory very low.
Lots of good stuff in there, but my main complaint is this: If it’s going to be marketed for fourteen year olds then why is the sentence structure only as complicated as a Roald Dahl book? Nothing against Dahl, but I was reading his books when I was about eight. EIGHT. Let’s have a look at the opening lines shall we?
In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind. One that had so far proven correct, as Oll’s maps tended to do. Katsa ran her hand along the cold walls and counted doors and passageways as she went.
I admit to almost chucking the book after reading that. What saved it for me was the political intrigue – not the writing. Everywhere in the book the author tells and doesn’t show. Just like above. I have no idea of the experience of the character. Not really. Do I feel the walls? See them? Smell them? No. I was told they’re cold. Woopty freakin’ do. For all the time spent on discussing the scenery as the characters travel not once do I feel it.
This includes the physical aspects of the relationship between Katsa and Po. Although I do admit the sex is pretty well written about, just unnecessary in the grand scheme of the story. [For those who thought Meyer was graphic this book is not for you or your children; for those who thought Meyer wussed out on the sex in Breaking Dawn this is slightly better.] Truth is the book in subject matter was appropriate for older kids, but the writing was so far below what fourteen year olds should be capable of reading that I can’t help but feel this type of book only further contributes to the noted dumbing down that’s been discussed as a problem in recent years.
When complex matters such as politics, notions of power and responsibility are addressed the lessons are better conversed about when the story doesn’t preach so much as illustrates. The foundations of all these issues were ignored and instead addressed superficially leaving the reader with some notions of good/bad but not why they might be so. I can’t help but resent a book that seems to want people to question authority or why they might do what they do and simply doesn’t encourage the thinking necessary to do so adequately.
I can’t say this is a must read for anyone other than those who really, really, really want to check out a fantasy book with characters who are only slightly more fleshed out than Bella Swan in Twilight. Am I bummed I spent the time reading it? Absolutely not. I was engaged in the political intrigue and mysterious King so I quite easily read through it. Still, the taste on my palate was that of a McDonald’s hamburger when what I really wanted was one from Red Robin (really I’d prefer Plan B, but for the sake of genre expectations Red Robin works best).