I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
[Another old review. Happily, it's been a few years and my last paragraph is no longer true. In fact, I'm behind and have several books of Cashore's I need to read in order to catch up.]
I have a fondness for pseudo-historical fantasy - you know, fantasy set in a world that feels a little like some kind of European past, but not. So, I automatically tend to like this kind of stuff. However, two things about this book really grabbed me. The first was Katsa. The second, the romance between Katsa and Po.
When I first heard about this book, I thought it sounded potentially cheesy - I mean, aren't these Graced people really just people who are particularly talented in something? I still don't think it's the most interesting idea to base a whole world on, but it turned out to not be as bad as I feared. From what I can tell, Graces are talents, but they're like talents supercharged by magic. For instance, a person in our world might be talented at survival, but no amount of talent could help someone survive the way Katsa managed to. Katsa was absolutely awesome.
Seriously, even if there had been no romance in this book, I probably still would have loved it, just because I loved Katsa so much. If I had read this book when I was a teen, I probably would have wanted to be Katsa's friend, and maybe kick butt like her, too. She's so tough that it takes climbing a nearly vertical surface while carrying a guy who weighs at least as much as she does to make her tired. When she gets attacked by a mountain lion and comes out of the experience with a dead lion to butcher and a few wounds, she's happy to have the meat and fur and annoyed, just annoyed, that the wounds might slow her down a little. Yeah, she's tough and totally awesome.
And how great is it that Po doesn't even mind that Katsa could wipe the floor with him if she decided not to hold back any? Well, maybe not by the end of the book - I think he might be a bit better at fighting than her by the end of the book - but I still think it's great that he never had a moment when his manly pride needed soothing.
That leads me to the second thing I really liked about this book: the romance between Katsa and Po. This is romance where the girl doesn't need the guy to save her, the guy doesn't mind that the girl is stronger than he is, and both characters have their own strengths and weaknesses and can use them to support each other. How great is that? Plus, when Katsa has her freak-outs about marriage, instead of giving her an ultimatum or trying to gradually talk her into marriage, Po just says, "Ok, you don't want to get married, we don't have to get married. We'll just be together as long as you want us to be together." That's some serious low pressure romance.
That last bit was also something I didn't really like about the book. While I was happy that Katsa wasn't presented as an emotionally weak and silly character whose only reason for not wanting to marry was that she didn't realize how good marriage could be, I kind of felt bad for Po. You see, even though I don't like it when a female main character is eventually convinced by other characters that all the things she initially desired or feared at the beginning of the book were wrong, I don't really want the guy to have to cave on everything either. In this book, the direction of Po and Katsa's relationship was entirely determined by Katsa - faced with the prospect of their relationship ending before it could even really start, Po decided to just cave and do whatever Katsa wants in their relationship. This just made me...sad.
Another thing I didn't really like about the book: the names. Granted, this is a general problem that applies to a lot of books in the "pseudo-historical" category. Authors, trying to come up with pseudo-historical-and-yet-still-fantasy names, end up with names that are odd or just a bit silly. "Katsa" is ok, I guess, although the name made me instantly connect her with cats. "Greening" becomes stranger/sillier when you consider that all his sibling are also named after colors (which is maybe not so strange when you consider what celebrities in Hollywood have named their children). I had trouble with "Bitterblue," because I could not imagine a mother who actually liked her child giving her that name. It's an unpleasant-sounding name, and I kept expecting unpleasant behavior from that character because of it. Finally, the big one: "Po." "Po." I think that name must have been a dare. As in, "I dare you to give your romantic male lead a name that can make your readers helpless with laughter, and then I dare you to make him sexy." And so she did, because, holy smokes, Po is sexy.
Overall, I highly recommend this book, and I'm definitely going to read more of Cashore's stuff. Except, darn it, Cashore hasn't published much yet, just one other book as far as I can tell. Well, that's depressing.
(Original review, with read-alikes and watch-alikes, posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)