Falling into Fantasy: Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

I’ve been getting into YA fantasy lately: these are two of my new favorites!

Katsa has been able to kill a man with her bare hands since she was eight—she’s a Graceling, one of the rare people in her land born with an extreme skill. As niece of the king, she should be able to live a life of privilege, but Graced as she is with killing, she is forced to work as the king’s thug. When she first meets Prince Po, Graced with combat skills, Katsa has no hint of how her life is about to change. She never expects to become Po’s friend. She never expects to learn a new truth about her own Grace—or about a terrible secret that lies hidden far away . . . a secret that could destroy all seven kingdoms with words alone.

With elegant, evocative prose and a cast of unforgettable characters, debut author Kristin Cashore creates a mesmerizing world, a death-defying adventure, and a heart-racing romance that will consume you, hold you captive, and leave you wanting more.

Graceling had me from the first line: “In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa has a map in her mind.” Cashore writes elegantly and seemingly effortlessly. I couldn’t put it down once I started, I was so completely absorbed in this fantasy world. As someone who has studied political science, I appreciated the dynamic between the seven kingdoms and the different types of rulers. The concept of “graces” and the way they are revealed (a person who has been bestowed with one will have two different color eyes) was original. I love how the gifts that people are “graced” with evolve over time and are not always quite what they seem. The mix of the mundane with the fantastical (you could be gifted with a talent for swimming or telepathy) was intriguing.

Katsa is an amazing character and full of depth. Though the story is written in third person, it was a very close third (limited completely to Katsa) and I felt like I really knew and understood her desires, her motivations, and ultimately, her actions. Contrary to a typical YA heroine, she isn’t interested in pretty dresses or romance. Her views on marriage and relationships are admittedly extreme and I have read many reviews that take issue with that and even go so far as to claim that Cashore is pushing her feminist man-hating agenda on young readers, but I didn’t find this to be the case. While I disagree with a lot of Katsa’s logic about how marriage and children would limit her power and agency, I understood that was just Katsa’s view, and it was evident in the text why she held such beliefs. Others have criticized Katsa for her abrasive attitude, but it is easy to see how someone who has been conditioned that her gift to the world is her deadliness would push even those she loves the most away.

Oh, and don’t get me started on Po because it will be difficult to stop gushing. I am not prone to fall in love with fictional heroes. I want to slap Mr. Darcy and would present Edward with a protection from stalking order. But Po, oh Po. Who wouldn’t fall for a guy who has one gold and one silver eye and is covered with intricate tattoos? But it isn’t just his physical description that made me fall in love with him. He has honor and patience. I dare you to try and resist his charm.

The plot was exciting and gripping, and while not quite as action-packed as The Hunger Games, the quality of the prose more than made up for it. I’m eagerly awaiting my chance to check out Fire and Bitterblue, also set in this world.

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages—not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangers—beautiful, haunted Akiva—fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself.

The tag line for Daughter of Smoke and Bone is “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.” This is almost a misrepresentation of the book, because these creatures aren’t exactly angels and devils. I did decide to read this book because I am fascinated by angels—Angelology by Danielle Trussoni is a favorite of mine—but had been disappointed by the first YA “angel” book I read. The hugely popular bestselling Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick seduced me with its gorgeous cover, but the book is perhaps the most terrible one I have ever finished with a milquetoast heroine and a nonsensical (nonexistent?) plot.

So how pleased was I discovered Karou and her world? Very.

Laini Taylor’s imagination is wonderful, glorious, and many other superlatives. I want to crawl inside and spend a day looking at the world through her eyes. Which I guess I got to do when I read this book!

Her prose is lush. Her words don’t just describe–they let us feel and taste and hear and smell the world she’s created. I’d normally be rolling my eyes at the purple prose, slashing through similes and metaphors and adverbs and adjectives with a red pen. But Laini Taylor’s words are magic–strung together like Brimstone strings together teeth.

Karou is a fantastic character. I wanted to have goulash with her at Poison Kitchen. I want to sit in life drawing class with her. I wanted to go on errands around the globe with her, opening doors that are portals into other worlds.

And as much as I loved this story and reveled in the language used to tell it, a few things held it back from being a 5 star book for me.

The structure of the story bothered me. The first half is all present day, forward motion, from Karou’s perspective, with short blips from Akiva’s. It didn’t feel balanced for me. Then, a large portion of the second half is a flashback, a story within a story. While I loved the magic and fairy tale quality of the story, it didn’t “flow” for me, if that makes any sense.

I am usually not a fan of insta-love, and Laini Taylor has the only believable or (justifiable) excuse for it, but I still wish I knew more about why Karou and Akiva fall in love, what they see in each other. I wished Karou had retained her spunk after meeting the love of her life. She seemed much more fun at the beginning.

I thought this was a great take on star-crossed lovers and loved the inventive mythology and gorgeous prose. I have high hopes for the sequel, Days of Blood and Starlight.

Both Graceling and Daughter of Smoke and Bone are fantasy worlds I loved falling into—are even worlds I would want to live in (or maybe just wish I had created). I recommend them for any readers of fantasy, even if you don’t typically read YA, and I do feel they are both suited for a more mature teen audience.

You can read my review of the 3rd book in the Graceling Realm series, Bitterblue, here, and my review of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone sequel, Days of Blood and Starlight, here.

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