Summary: Graceling is set in a fantasy world where rare people are Graced--born with an extraordinary ability and identified by their different colored eyes. Katsa has been Graced with killing and is used to do the "dirty work" of her Uncle Randa, King of the Middluns. She secretly resists her uncle and the other tyrannical kings by forming the Council, a group of people who resist evil doers. Through her work, Katsa meets Po, a fellow Graceling and Prince of Lienid. As Katsa and Po travel together to find out the truth of the kidnapping of Po's grandfather, they grow closer together and Katsa begins to see herself in a different light.
Musings: In many ways Graceling is a more explicitly fantasy (i.e. medieval-like setting rather than high school) version ofTwilight. But, in this version, Bella can kick Edward's ass and Edward isn't a prude.
Like Bella and Edward, Katsa and Po have sexual tension from the beginning, which drives the novel (and my interest in the characters). Katsa is more independent and confident than Bella (she's a very similar character, actually, to Katniss from Hunger Games), but she's also very conflicted about her Grace and the kind of person her Grace has made her. With Po's help, she learns to be more confident in her ability to control her Grace. Po is much like Edward in his handsome looks, blush-inducing stare, and selflessness. He thinks only of what is best for Katsa, somewhat to the point of losing his place as a real character himself.
The story doesn't follow the conventional fantasy plot line where the heroes plan an enormous fight against a powerful enemy, then come face-to-face with the enemy in a final huge battle. The climactic moments of the novel come quickly and from unexpected places; they end quickly as well. Because of this, the narrative arc felt a little strange, and the ending of the book didn't have the can't-put-it-down pacing of the beginning (when I was dying to see when Katsa and Po would finally get together).
The novel has a strong feminist message than occasionally comes across a little heavy-handed. Katsa is no girly-girl; she refuses to wear dresses, cuts her hair short like a boy, and has sworn off marriage and childbirth. Katsa recognizes her feelings for Po, but she also realizes that marriage, especially in her society and with Po's nobility, would demand unacceptable compromises in independence for her. Katsa and Po work out an arrangement that can be a little unusual for those of us who like marriage as the classic happy ending. Nonetheless, Cashore presents a loving relationship that is strong and stable despite the rejection of tradition. Many modern novels have strong female characters, but Cashore sticks strongly to her characterization of Katsa, not reeling Katsa into a feminine norm like other authors might have.
For readers who enjoyed Twilight but wanted a Bella who wasn't so submissive and insecure, Graceling is a good choice. Although there won't be a direct sequel to the book, Cashore's second novel, a prequel to Graceling, will be published in the fall of 2009, and her third book, which will take place six years after Graceling, is currently being written.