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Both by Kristin Cashore.
As a child, Lady Katsa killed her cousin when he reached out to her, because something in her feared his touch. Now, her uncle the King, uses her to intimidate his nobles - tourture and death are Katsa's trade. But she's tired of it, and working behind his back to do good deeds. This puts her in the path of Prince Po, a man Graced with fighting. Together, they attempt to solve the mystery of who kidnapped Po's grandfather and why.
At first, it's hard to remember all the country names and positions. But soon enough Katsa and Po are on the road and things start moving quickly. Even with the page length, it's hard to imagine how much occurs in GRACELING. Kristin Cashore keeps the action and revelations flying fast and furious. And for those not into fight scenes, there's a wonderful romance between the oblivious Katsa and perceptive Po. (I also enjoyed the relationship between Katsa's cousin Prince Raffin and his assistant Bann. At least, I believe there's a relationship between them.)
I enjoyed Cashore's characters. Katsa is somewhat atypical for a heroine, wanting neither marriage nor children. She makes a reasonable argument for not wanting either, but doesn't deny herself a relationship when the opportunity comes to make one work. Each of the surrounding characters have interesting personalities as well. The perceptive Bitterblue is a favorite of mine, so I'm happy that Cashore is hard at work on a novel about her.
GRACELING explores prejudice, child abuse, and other dark subjects. But it does so while maintaining a light, adventurous tone. It gives weight to the reading while leaving it a fun experience. I certainly enjoyed the novel.
FIRE begins before GRACELING, connected only by the character of Leck. It is set in the land of the Dells, home to beautiful monsters. The ending, however, implies that the Dells may not remain separate and unknown from the other lands for long.
Fire is beautiful and irresistable, the last of the human monsters. She'd rather be plain and unnoticed, for her cruel father caused the previous king to lead the land into disrepair. The civil war is reaching a height, and recent events prevent Fire from remaining apart from the action.
She also dislikes spending time with Prince Brigan, whose shields can prevent her mind control, and who reminds her of her father's worst actions. Fire nurses her guilt, and it only becomes clear as the novel continues how much she holds herself responsible for. She's both a larger than life heroine and a young girl who likes to play with puppies.
Once more, the characters are the standout, though some are certainly irritating. I like that Cashore doesn't condemn sexual relationships nor ignore possible consequences. There's a tangled web of relationships in FIRE, on par with the most glorious of soap operas. It makes a nice background to the war and Fire's place within it.
The only problem with the climax is the knowledge of what happens in GRACELING. It dims some of Fire's triumph, though she and Brigan certainly accomplish many other things. FIRE moves just as quickly as GRACELING. I can see why fans of YA fantasy have been going crazy over these novels. I know I'm already ready to read the third.