Originally posted at Romance Around the CornerThis series flew under my radar and I only discovered it this year after I read Janine’s review of Bitterblue, the third book in the series. It seemed to be a favorite of many, so I decided to read the first book. It was exactly what I was hoping it would be.Katsa lives in a world where some people have an enhanced ability, or grace. They are known as gracelings, and in Katsa’s kingdom these people are treated like tools. She’s graced with killing, so her uncle, who happens to be the king, uses her as his personal enforcer and executioner. People fear and avoid her, and she hates herself for the things she’s done. As a way to atone and even revel against her uncle, Katsa created the Council, a secret organization in charge of helping people. During one of their missions they rescue an old man from his kidnappers, but by doing so they uncover a mystery that will lead her directly to danger, but also freedom. That night she also meets a man named Po who’s graced with fighting. He helps her break free and see herself under a different light.This is a story about regaining power, becoming your own person and accountability. There’s also an underlying theme of sacrifice and doing what’s right even when it doesn't feel good. Katsa starts as powerful but powerless. She’s manipulated by her uncle and forced to do what he orders, but she’s also powerless because of how she perceives herself. She feels like a monster, therefore she acts like one. But progressively she starts to change. First, she creates the Council as a way to right the world’s wrongs, and as a way of rebelling against the oppressive power of her uncle. With a bit of help from Po, she realizes that her version of herself doesn't have to match the reality, and that she has the means to change what nature and circumstances made of her. She goes from everything happening to her, to someone who makes thing happen and takes action. There’s a clearly defined character arc, and by the end of the book she’s a different person.The romance is an important part of the story, but it’s almost subdued and it feels more secondary than it really is. The relationship between Po and Katsa was romantic and sweet. He admires and supports hers. He laughed. “I know you’re teasing me. And you should know I’m not easily humiliated. You may hunt for my food, and pound me every time we fight, and protect me when we’re attacked, if you like. I’ll thank you for it.” “But I’d never need to protect you, if we were attacked. And I doubt you need me to do your hunting, either.” “True. But you’re better than I am, Katsa. And it doesn't humiliate me.” He fed a branch to the fire. “It humbles me. But it doesn't humiliate me.”They are partners who love and complement each other, something that becomes obvious at the end of the book. I was worried that she had all the power in the relationship, but that’s not the case. And even if it were, it’s interesting to see a romance where the heroine is the one who holds the power, especially a Fantasy YA. The theme of gaining control over your own body and life is also woven into the romance. Katsa doesn't want to get married. At first she doesn't think she would make a good wife, and when she finally breaks free of her uncle and becomes her own person, she hates the idea of belonging to someone else. She never changes her mind because independence means everything to her. The romance works around this, and does it in a very successful way. The premise and world-building were great. I think one of the reasons why it works is that the world is fairly simple, and the gracelings are the only fantastic element, but because the whole story revolves around them, there’s no way for it to feel confusing or overly complicated. The story flows at an excellent pace, there’s no info-dumping and the tension builds progressively. Ms. Cashore is a wonderful storyteller and I’m amazed by the quality of this book.Graceling isn't perfect, though, and its biggest flaw is the villain. I can’t say much about him, because he’s not as obvious as it may seem, but I think what makes him the weakest link is his lack of motivation. He’s evil for the sake of it, and when compared to interesting, complex characters like Katsa and Po, he comes across as cartoonish and lacking. It doesn't help that we almost never see him, and I think that Ms. Cashore wrote herself into a corner when she gave him so much power. The story is told in third person but always from Katsa’s POV, so she has to be with the villain for us to see him. But the problem is that she can’t be with him for different reasons that I won’t mention here, so all we know about him is that he’s very bad.The final confrontation was rushed and anticlimactic. It came out of nowhere and it left me wanting more. But it fit the story and it made sense. I don’t think an epic battle was possible given the circumstances. And to be honest, the real conflict doesn't come from the villain, it comes from within the main characters, and they do get a good ending. In case you couldn't tell, I loved this book. I’m glad it took me so long to read it because now I get to glom the whole series and I don’t have to wait. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. There are many great details that I can’t mention here because the review is already long, but I think the details are what make the book great.Note: this is a series, but each book features a different set of characters. I think the three books are loosely related, so Graceling has a HEA, albeit a non-traditional one. Don't worry about cliffhangers and series that never end.