Boy, is there a lot to say about this book. For everyone's convenience, I'm going to start with the story and concepts themselves first, because this is likely to turn into a rambling rant before long.
The story idea, of individuals being born with special talents or powers called Graces, is a fantastic and timeless infusion of the supernatural into a rustic worldscape without our 21st Century hang-ups. It's exampled and used beautifully throughout the story, both in its bad ways and its good. The concept of having a female lead Graced with the skill of fighting, so that no man, army, or king is her match is the fulfilling dream of many girls and women. I know I grew up with dreams of power over my male counterparts, dreaming to be their equal, even to surpass them and be seen with and given the respect I desired in a man's field of prior expertise and dominance. I dreamed of a story and character like this all my life.
Therein lies part of the issue, some will say, when they see my following sentiments, but I'd like to place a critical eye to the story regardless because I have such high expectations.
Let's start with this: There are a lot of things that Kristin Cashore did right in this book. There's a whole banquet of things she did beautifully. From the major and side characters, to the world itself--these are points of welcome richness. Her writing style, as well, is enjoyable and easy on any reader's pacing. The plot, whatever simple fragrance of one there is for a while, is far from complex, and only has a minor development or two. Cashore relies largely on her main characters to keep the interest of the reader, and the characters largely deliver.
My problem lies solely in Katsa herself, our main character.
There are a lot of stories that I praise because of character transformation throughout a book or series. Character development, to me, is a key element to most books. The exception lies in stories such as espionage thrillers where character development isn't the focus because the characters themselves are pawns and pieces on the chessboard, and given little attention even when their actions are the ones we follow throughout. However, this is a story that builds itself up off of character relationships and the effects that the characters have on one another. From there they grow and change and become more than what they were when we first were introduced to them.
Under this guise of story and growth, even the most obnoxious, cruel, or stupid of characters can be forgiven and grow in favor, because they are developing from what they were. My fix in this story is entirely personal, and it's a pretty fantastic bet that anyone else can read it and never experience the issues that I have with the book on a whole because of Katsa herself.
But it's Katsa that is the bar and holds the spotlight. She is the one that sets the trend and dominates the book, and quite frankly, I find her a spoiled, selfish brat who can never be stopped because no one will ever get the upper hand on her and be able to put her in her place. The attempt, however, is made to do just that throughout this first book, and it's done in the kinder of the two ways: Killing them with kindness.
Unfortunately for us, it doesn't work.
The largest of my gripes comes with the relations between her and Po, our--of course--secondary and male lead. Po is the "kill it with kindness" part of this book, but Katsa is the obstinate, ungiving child who will literally kill you if you cross any line with her that she doesn't like. Now that's pretty badass in most cases. In hers it just comes off with her reminding me starkly of a child getting ready to throw a temper tantrum, who also has spineless parents that will bend to said child's will, therefore creating the pathetic downward spiral that only feeds and increases said child's selfishness until she thinks she can rule the world with a whim.
And it's not even that she doesn't have the punch to back up the threat. Her bite is immensely worse than her bark. I'll be the first to admit that. It's what I like about her most. The problem is that she ruins the stereotypical trademark of "with power comes great responsibility." She learns to use her Grace with responsibility...
...but she treats every living and breathing thing like dirt.
And I mean that about the friends she grew up with, the men she's trained with, her main love interest, the people that depend on her-- and don't even get me started on cruelty to animals, because she treats horses like they're machines, and who cares if they run themselves to death under her hand.
My problem with Katsa is that she has no respect for other living beings, human or otherwise. And this is displayed most prominently when she gets her obligatory love interest, our main male lead. That being said, her love interest is actually everything you could want in a man! Yes, he has his flaws, but like most storybook heartthrobs, he's fantastically desirable. Heck, I admit I'd marry him flat out if he was real and mine. Right there and then--done, married, mine forever. I would gladly do it.
...but though he's the one that smacks some sense into Katsa when it comes to her freedom of choice with the Grace that she's been blessed with, he does absolutely nothing to soften her selfishness.
The thing that bothers me the most is that our male lead sacrifices every comfort, every desire, every ounce of himself even up to his life, and Katsa still refuses to fulfill his most basic of requests from her. The amount that he GIVES for her, when she gives him nothing at all, is astonishing. And yet he still stays with her.
How?! WHY?! What man wants that much punishment?! What man could STAND that much punishment?!
And I'm not saying there aren't men out there that wouldn't. I know very well there are people like that because I'm one of them. But for a relationship to work, whether it's friendship or otherwise, it has to be an equal exchange. Otherwise it splinters and falls apart, and the wounds afterwards are greater than any left by mere physical punches or flesh wounds.
My gripe with this book is Katsa herself entirely. She is ungiving to the point of obscenity. There is a large chunk of the book that focuses on the intimacy of her relationship with her love interest, and yet every.
We get mention of how much she doesn't need him. Doesn't want him if he comes with a price. Doesn't want to deal with his Grace. Doesn't want to bend in the slightest. And you know what's the most frustrating part of this? She doesn't. She does not bend.
In any other situation I'd probably be screaming, "GOOD FOR YOU GIRL! You hold up against that man that wants you to change!" But to demand everything of him, and then give nothing yourself? When he clearly cares for you beyond the mere realm of "Like"? That's not only cruel, that's savage.
Yet all in all there is a light in this book. The characters are literal stars, and they are the ones that carry you through this book, more than anything. If you're reading it for plot, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you're reading it for the romance... well you should probably look elsewhere for that, too. However, if it's a story you want about a fantastic man and a thick-headed girl, then read it. It really does charm you, and it's really a wonderful read. It's just a shame that, yet again, the main character had to ruin everything else that was so right with the story.
Give it a shot, guys. For all my complaints, you've got a good chance of enjoying it, if only for the side characters alone.