"... it was a strange monster, for beneath its exterior it was frightened and sickened by its own violence. It chastised itself for its savagery. And sometimes it had not heart for violence and rebelled against it utterly."
Graceling is a fantasy/adventure tale by author Kristin Cashore set in a land of seven kingdoms, each ruled by a king. Five of the kings are wicked and selfish, prone to border skirmishes and displays of power. However, two of the kingdoms, that of Leinid and Monsea, are ruled by kings with a reputation for fairness and strong leadership. Leinid is an island, well separated from the others, which affords its people distance from the mainland battles. Monsea is separated from the other lands by an unforgiving and brutal mountain range.
Among the people of these lands, who were united in days of long ago, exist a handful of misbreeds. Men and women, boys and girls who are born with extraordinary talents. They are called "gracelings", as they have been graced with superhuman abilities for sword fighting, swimming, archery, running, and a host of others talents. The gracelings are feared, shunned, misunderstood, and avoided by most of the people. The heroine of the story is a strong-willed teenager named Katsa, the niece of the Middlun king. She is graced with an unparalled ability for killing and combat. Her uncle uses her to settle disputes or extract quick and merciless revenge on his enemies. He keeps her and commands her as he would a savage dog, and this control keeps her down and in chains. However, as Katsa matures, she starts to come to grips with who she is and how her grace can help bring justice to the lands. She forms a secret Council with other sympathizers and they undertake missions of mercy. On one mission to rescue a kidnapped prince from Leinid, she meets a graced fighter named Po. There is an immediate spark between Po and Katsa that surprises her, as nobody has ever intringued her in that way before.
Ultimately the Middlun king pushes Katsa too far and she refuses to obey his barbaric and unscrupulous orders. As she must flee her kingdom, she decides to travel with Po, who we learn is also looking for the Leinid prince, who happens to be his grandfather. Po is the seventh son of the Leinid king. Katsa and Po set out on a quest to unravel the truth of the kidnapping. Their journey takes them to Monsea, where they must pass across the rugged mountain border. On the long and treacherous journey, Po and Katsa fall in love. The beautiful scenery is outshone only by the transformation we see in Katsa due to Po's love and gentleness. Slowly he helps Katsa to dispel the notion that she is a monster, and that she is so much more than her grace. He helps her to blossom into who she was meant to be. A harrowing tale takes place among this romance of a battle with the king of Monsea, who is actually truly wicked and cunning. They help to save the king's young daughter Bitterblue from murder by her own father's hand. This was a vivid and wonderful journey with well developed characters and scenes that filled the imagination and the spirit. Highly recommended.