Why I listened to it: Most of my audiobook listening these days are review copies for AudioGals but every now and then I like to fit in a book from my own audiobook library and that’s what I did with this one. I have had it for a while and I was in the right mood. A number of my blogger friends have said the book is excellent and I’d heard good things about the audiobook too.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) In a world where people born with an extreme skill – called a Grace – are feared and exploited, Katsa carries the burden of the skill even she despises: the Grace of killing. She lives under the command of her uncle Randa, King of the Middluns, and is expected to execute his dirty work, punishing and torturing anyone who displeases him.
When she first meets Prince Po, who is Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change.
She never expects to become Po’s friend.
She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace – or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away…a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone
What worked for me (and what didn’t): It had been so long since I’d bought the audiobook, all I remembered about it was that it was a fantasy. So I plunged in basically knowing nothing about it. I was caught up from the very start. Katsa is a girl of about 18 or so. She is the orphaned niece of King Randa who rules the Middluns, one of the Seven Kingdons in this alternate world. In this world, some children are born “Graced” – the outward sign of it is that they have bi-coloured eyes – but just what their Grace is, cannot be told from looking at them alone. Graceling children in King Randa’s realm are sent to the king to be of use. Those whose Graces are not useful are sent back to their families but they are treated with suspicion and are basically outcasts.
When Katsa was about 8, her Grace revealed itself. She is a very capable killer. Her uncle decides to train her as his own private attack dog. Quickly, Katsa gains a fearsome reputation. As she grows however, she dislikes being forced into breaking arms, removing fingers, knocking heads and killing for the king’s purposes. She starts a kind of resistance movement, called the Council and by it, uses her Grace for justice. I think that in doing so, she begins to understand her own power and that she can control it’s use. This is a theme which the book comes back to every now and then as Katsa grows and issues of power and control are extremely important to her.
When the Council rescues kidnapped Prince Tealiff, the father of the Lienid King (Lienid being another of the Seven Kingdoms), they quickly understand that the King who held him was not the one who organised it. The who and the why of it are still mysteries and they decide to keep Tealiff hidden until they know more. During the rescue, Katsa encounters a young Lienid man, who turns out to be Prince Po, the seventh son of the Lienid King and the grandson of Tealiff. Prince Po is also investigating his grandfather’s disappearance and very soon, they work together with the Council to discover the truth behind it.
Prince Po (who is not a panda) is also Graced. He has superior combat skills and for the first time, Katsa has someone to fight against. She is still his superior but the novelty of having someone to practice with, instead of having to take on 7 or 8 soldiers just to work up a mild sweat is exciting to Katsa.
Through her work on the Council, her growing self-awareness and the influence of Prince Po, Katsa realises that she is in fact strong enough to defy King Randa. When she is tasked with torturing an honourable man for the king’s gain, she refuses and this brings about a confrontation with the king.
I don’t really want to say any more about the plot because I felt it unfolded beautifully and naturally. The concept of “Graces” was simple and made the world very easy to understand while still being fantastical. The world building was fairly spare but it didn’t need more. The world is not terribly complicated. There were no huge info dumps but there was enough of the world for me to get a sense of it and I thought the settings were well realised. There is a romance thread between Katsa and Po which was very satisfying if somewhat unconventional. It was Katsa’s consistent wish never to marry. She did not wish to have children either. Having been under the control of King Randa for so many years, having been used against her will, she is fiercely independent and, once she gains her independence from Randa, she will not give it up to anyone. Even the man she loves. Even if he would never use it against her.
There aren’t that many heroines who are the stronger fighter. There aren’t many heroines who are so fiercely independent and who stay that way. Just as in real life, Po has certain skills Katsa does not but she has abilities far beyond him in other areas. I loved the way Po celebrated Katsa’s independence and praised her skills. He was comfortable enough in his own skin that he did not ever feel intimidated by her. He gloried in her abilities and encouraged her at all turns. And their HEA is one that suits them. It is not the conventional sort of happy ending but I found it satisfying and it fit with Katsa’s well established character.
I did think the end section was somewhat weaker than the earlier and middle sections of the book. The villian’s motivations were unclear – he was just evil and it became fairly obvious who he was reasonably early in the story. The denouement was somewhat sudden but it fit and I liked the surprise of it. And it preserved Katsa’s character so I was all for it. It was the section afterwards which felt a little underdone to me. While I was happy with the way the romantic storyline ended, there was a sort of fizzle near the end in terms of drama and action.
That said, it was an excellent story and I enjoyed it thoroughly. I don’t tend to be a female-centric reader but this book was all about Katsa. While I liked and admired Po very much, it was Katsa’s story of growth, of taking control of her own life and her Grace which was the real joy of the story. There are plenty of books where the heroine wants the full white wedding and 2.4 children. There aren’t that many where a heroine wants something else. And there are fewer where the heroine sticks to her guns and actually gets what she wants – so many times, the story would have it that the heroine’s wishes change over time. These can all work just fine for me but I do think a story where a heroine knows her own mind, and navigates her HEA without compromising her goals is pretty powerful and a definite boon to the romance and fantasy canon.
What else? The audiobook I listened to was narrated by Emma Powell. I hadn’t heard her before but I very much enjoyed her narration. She gave Lienid characters a kind of Welsh accent and for Po, she lowered her voice a little and add a bit of the husky as well as the accent. Katsa’s direct (often to the point of bluntness) and clear tones were just right for this girl whose upbringing has meant that she has few friends and tends to miss social cues. As she journeys in this book however, she does make more friends and becomes more self-aware and this too is obvious and complemented by Ms. Powell’s delivery. The quality of the audio was excellent and I found the narration immersive. This was one of those books where I found extra things to do just so I could keep listening. (This meant the family had cupcakes on Friday.)
I think the audiobook available in the US has multiple narrators. I’ve heard it’s very good also. While I would have liked to have the opportunity to choose which version I wanted to listen to rather than geographic restrictions forcing the choice upon me, I did like Ms. Powell’s narration very much and I have downloaded the other books in the series – Fire and Bitterblue (also narrated by Ms. Powell) for when next I want to sneak in a listen from my own library.
This audiobook is suitable for younger audiences and is marketed as YA Fantasy. For those readers who don’t read/listen to a lot of YA, don’t let that put you off. The main characters are young, but they are adults and they act in adult ways and the story is wonderful. If you liked Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series or The Curse of Chalion (scroll down to see the review) or Paladin of Souls, then I think you will enjoy this one too.
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