Stars: 4 out of 5 stars.
Oh my. This book took me several tries to get going, but I am glad I persevered. I think I had trouble getting into it because it wasn’t what I was expecting. I have no idea what I was expecting, but definitely not fantasy. I first heard of this book in book club, in reference to another (non-fantasy) book, though I’m not sure which one, so probably that shaped my expectations.
At any rate, I found Cashore’s debut novel extremely refreshing and original. I had some trouble putting the setting into a category in my mind because the map provided makes it look a lot like the Iberian peninsula and it was never clear if this book takes place on Earth or another planet, and in the past, future or an alternative past/present/future. I finally decided on my own that it was supposed to be Earth (the descriptions of the landscape and animals were normal) and in an alternative past based on the formal, antiquated-sounding language, treatment of women, uncivilized/unsafe rural areas, and dependence on horses and ships for transportation. However, I would entertain arguments for alternative present/future because of the genetic anomalies that are Gracelings (humans with various special abilities).
Eventually the mission of the book became clear and I was swept along on Katsa & co’s main journey. The pivotal point for me was when the male lead becomes a romantic interest. Her description of falling in love and coming to terms with what it means for her future were powerful and beautiful. I also liked how strong a character she was and that the resolution of the romantic situation did not compromise her feminist integrity, yet was subtle in conclusion (ie there was no “I don’t have to fit into society’s roles of women! I will do what I want!”). There were some real surprises in the last 75 or so pages that left my jaw hanging which was very satisfying!