Graceling, by Kristin Cashore
I zipped through Graceling in about three nights on my Kindle (hooray for library e-books!) and was later surprised to learn this was Cashore's debut novel. It has the easy readability of an experienced author, and I can only imagine how much better her later works will be!
Graceling is reminiscent of Tamora Pierce's work - always a good thing - with a healthy dash of Hunger Games mixed in. The heroine is "graced" with an unnatural skill for killing, and so is used by her uncle the King as a kind of thug enforcer.
At first I was a little put off by the heroine's name - Katsa - thinking it was a deliberate HG rip-off of Katniss. Both books came out in 2008, though, so I guess we can chalk that up to coincidence.
Graceling has the typical travel-quest and coming-of-age elements that you might expect, but with an interesting emphasis on Katsa's emotional self-control. She frequently struggles to contain her rage, which makes her more human and relatable, and her stubborn independence is almost always a thing to be admired. The romance is predictable but sweet, and parents can rest assured that there's nothing overly graphic in that or the violence.
That said, the midpoint of the story contains a grueling survival ordeal that had me almost tasting the snow and blood, and I found myself wishing for a little more humor in the story - or any humor at all, for that matter - just to lighten some of the heaviness and travel monotony. That's a minor qualm, though, and nothing ever became too bleak.
The ending was satisfying while still leaving one minor mystery unsolved, which I believe is addressed in the sequel, Bitterblue. There's also a companion book to Graceling, Fire, which I already have on my Kindle and plan to read next.
In all, I'd definitely recommend Graceling for anyone who enjoys classic adventure quests and strong female heroines. While it lacked that mysterious "x factor" needed to break into my top favorites, it was still a great ride, and Cashore has conjured a world I look forward to visiting again soon.
Update: Since I wrote this a few days ago I've started reading Fire, and I have to add a mini-review of that as well, by way of warning.
I only made it to chapter three, which includes a chapter-length prologue and is about 10% of the total book, but I've had to put it down. It's much, MUCH darker than Graceling, and I'm kind of shocked this is the work of the same author. The two things I can't stomach in any form of "entertainment" - rape and cruelty to animals - seem to be a recurring theme in this book, with the animal cruelty already being more than a little graphic. (Animal torture was mentioned in passing in Graceling, but never with descriptions of dripping blood and squealing animals.)
I understand that the prologue is setting up the book's villain, which is why I kept going, but when I realized the main character has the kind of effect on people that makes rape a constant threat - and lives in a world where it is used as a punishment to loved ones, no less - I put the book down in disgust. Now I feel like I need a mind shower.
On a less offensive note, the world of Fire is supposedly the same as that in Graceling, but it's so wildly different - a world of rainbow colored "monsters" that were never even hinted at in Graceling - that I'm just not buying it. It would have been better to establish this as a different world all together than to expect readers to believe that Katsa was able to traverse all of the known kingdoms without hearing so much as a rumor of this place, which is several kingdoms in its own right and apparently pretty darn big. The heroine already seems to be a carbon copy of Katsa, too: blessed with unnatural skills, ostracized by society, stubbornly determined not to marry the guy pursuing her, etc.
The good news is that Fire is a "companion" book, and therefore has almost nothing to do with Graceling. All of the characters save the villain are new, so I don't think I'll miss much by skipping it. Bitterblue is the actual sequel, although I'm reconsidering reading that now.
When I went to Amazon to grab the book cover I saw that Fire is almost universally well-liked, so I can't say if I'm just overly sensitive (very possible) or the story gets WAY better after chapter 3. If you've read it, feel free to weigh in in the comments and let me know your thoughts.
PS - Looking for a good book? Then head over to my Book Review Page, where I've listed all of my reviews so far and also starred the ones I'd most recommend.