Since this story is a coming of age tale, the book revolves around Katsa, Po, and Bitterblue trying to find their places in the world. They are learning that the world is not morally black and white, but instead is made up of shades of gray. People are not pure evil or completely good, but are imperfect and a messy blend of both. Someone might have good intentions, yet cause hurt. Similarly, they may appear benevolent yet have evil motivations. How do you learn how and who to trust in a world with so much gray area?
Identity is a major theme, of course, and Katsa is on a major quest to discover what kind of person she is and who she wants to become. Gracelings are labeled by their Grace at an early age and this becomes a part of their identity. Unfortunately, Katsa is identified as a killer and this leaves her with very few friends. Part of the discovery process for Katsa and Po is to learn how to use their Graces wisely and to stand up to those who would manipulate them to their own advantage.
The coming of age framework of the story brings a depth to Graceling, but there is still plenty of entertainment. Cashore blends mystery, adventure, and romance and even tosses in a bit of swashbuckling. These elements weave through the novel and help pace the story. I never found myself tiring of any of these elements because they were handled so well. They were simply a part of the storytelling.
The mystery element was handled particularly well and was nicely woven into the discovery process. As the characters try to discover and shape their identities, they also discover something about their Graces. ***MILD SPOILER ALERT*** Graces aren't always what they appear to be. For instance, Katsa's Grace appears to be the Grace of killing and this label is based on the evidence of what she can do. But as she grows and reflects on her Grace she discovers that not only do Graces develop and evolve, but they are often something other than what they appear. ***END SPOILER ALERT***
Again, this is a lovely story with a blend of elements that should appeal to a wide crowd of readers. I look forward to more from this author and will be reading Fire, the companion novel to this one.
Those who have enjoyed the Bayern novels by Shannon Hale (Goose Girl, Enna Burning, etc.) will also appreciate Graceling. Hale's books are written to a slightly younger crowd, but there are many similarities and the tone of the books are analogous
I'm including the video version of this review for those who prefer to see and hear. I also tend to provide more personal comments in my video version.