Katsa slunk down the stairway. One left turn and two right turns. She began to hear voices as she entered a corridor where the darkness flickered orange with the light of a torch set in the wall. Across from the torch was another corridor where, according to Oll, anywhere from two to ten guards should be standing watch before a certain cell at the passageway’s end.
These guards were Katsa’s mission. It was for them that she had been sent first.
Katsa crept toward the light and the sound of laughter. She could stop and listen, to get a better sense of how many she would face, but there was no time. She pulled her hood down low and swung around the corner.
She almost tripped over her first four victims, who were sitting on the floor across from each other, their backs against the wall, legs splayed, the air stinking with whatever strong drink they’d brought down here to pass the time of their watch. Katsa kicked and struck at temples and necks, and the four men lay slumped together on the floor before amazement had even registered in their eyes.
Katsa is Graced, born with mismatched eyes and an innate talent for killing. In a world where all Gracelings are regarded with some degree of fear and suspicion, Katsa’s Grace sets her apart as the most dangerous of them all — not least because the king uses her as his personal enforcer, requiring her to torture and kill in response to the slightest offence. But Katsa has a conscience, and the king’s tasks are killing her inside.
You might imagine it would be easy for someone of such superior skill to escape, if they’re being forced to do unpleasant things against their will, but Katsa has grown up in an environment where this is normal.The king’s power is absolute, even if she’s part of the force helping to make it so; he’s also her uncle. Like so many stories of domestic abuse, it barely occurs to her that she can leave, and when she does consider it she also has in mind the likely consequences for everyone else she would have to leave behind. So she works in whatever quiet and secret ways she can to undermine the king, and meanwhile, she continues to do as she’s told at great personal cost.
It’s in the midst of one of these distasteful missions that she meets Po, another Graceling who fights almost as well as she does. Although it’s not long before it becomes obvious that they’re going to get together, this is a long way from insta-love. The relationship between Katsa and Po develops gradually, but beautifully, from mutual suspicion to friendship and — slowly — into something more. I really appreciated the way that the abilities derived from their unique Graces informed not only their individual actions, but their interactions, from their very first meeting. And I loved the way they subsequently learn about one another as each also learns more about themselves.
I found this book a little slow in the beginning, as characters and settings are introduced, but by the time I’d reached about a quarter of the way through I was genuinely struggling to put it down between reading sessions. There are plenty of action scenes, often violent, but the book as a whole has a heart that makes it a pleasure to read.