Katsa, a princess living in a fatansy kingdom, is a Graceling – someone given a particular supernatural gift at birth. Such people are distinguished by her different-colored eyes and can be gifted any skill – from dancing and cooking to sword-fighting and mind-reading. If your Grace is useful a king might invite you to stay at his court and serve him. If you are not invited you become an outcast and a freak.
Katsa’s Grace is a rare one; people around her think she is Graced with killing. Even as a child she has been deadly – she has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight. This ability has left her isolated from much of society but also secured her place at her uncle’s court. She has been used as a crude weapon by king Randa who usually sends her to twist the arms (or even execute) of those who cross him. People are afraid of her, they start calling her a monster. She is lonely.
As Katsa grows up she is becoming less than happy with this arrangement. She’d rather not hurt everyone, and she’d rather not be her uncle’s dangerous lapdog. Guilt ridden by the pain that she has caused she forms a secret Council to do good work, but that is insufficient. When she meets Prince Po, looking for his kidnapped grandfather, her thoughts turn in new directions, and she has some choices to make. 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 but might influence her very existence.
This is a character-driven novel so small wonder characters are original – you hardly ever meet a princess-cum-hangman in other fantasy novels. I loved the idea of graces – the eye thing was neat, too. I liked Bitterblue, even if she was way too unrealistic to sound like a normal child. Prince Po, despite his laughable name, was a decent guy. There were some nice twists in the novel too. I never saw the demise of the bad guy coming the way it did.
To be totally honest and not to put too fine a point on it the world building sucks in this one. The names of five out of seven kingdoms are thinly disguised versions of North, South, East, West, and Middle. What’s more, if a king’s name is Ror, his kingdom’s capital is called…Ror City. Another king is called Leck and his capital is called…Leck City. And so on. King Randa, Katsa’s weak and bullying uncle? You guessed it right – he lives in Randa City. Every time I read these names all the fictional magic reality faded to a weak spark. What’s the point of writing a fantasy book if you can’t invent/find some good names for places and people? Prince PO, my goodness… is the boy supposed to be a badly-behaved Pekingese? Not the nickname I would have given a Prince (even if it was explained in a logical way).
Apart from that this book could have used a better editing job – you can figure out the mystery about 1/2 way through. The climax was somehow written in such a way that it became an anti-climax for me. The ending seemed to flop pretty hardcore. Another example: readers are introduced to a slew of characters that I also had no idea until much later who the hell they were. Couldn’t it be done in a more sensible way? The villain, king Leck, appeared too few times to become a fully-fledged evil character which might be interesting enough to hate and it is a pity because he had a potential for a big nasty baddie.
Last but not least: there are some underage sex scenes in this book and I am sure some people wouldn’t feel comfortable with this subject matter in a YA novel. The whole “romance” left me confused. Katsa is against the very idea of marriage and children but her verbal agreeing of having no strings attached sex completely clashed with what was written during the act itself. Here is why I am not buying the casual sex bit in this book: no strings attached sex does not end in tears on the girl in question’s part ( she was the one who wanted to keep it casual) and certainly does not cause feelings of distress upon imagining your “casual sex partner” leaving you, in this case Katsa imagining her life without Po and feeling totally miserable because of her vision. One brighter spot: I must commend Cashore for having Katsa on birth control (the plants she chewed on). A very reasonable move.