Graceling - Kristin Cashore
Among those familiar with genre in-jokes, the name Mary Sue is regarded with alarm and suspicion. Used to describe an implausibly talented, attractive and Extra Speshul protagonist, it's been thrown around so carelessly of late that it's become next to useless as a criticism; surely all heroes have an element of Mary Sue in them, somewhere? However, if there ever was a character to really deserve the epithet, Graceling's heroine Katsa could well be that one. The book's not actually that bad in the end, but this is no thanks to our first impressions of the protagonist.
Katsa is the Graceling of the title, Graces being preternatural talents possessed by any individual with mismatched eyes. A Grace can be anything from cooking to archery to swimming; Katsa's particular skill is killing, which she's been doing since the age of 8. In the service of her wicked uncle, King Randa, she is used as his assassin, debt collector, enforcer and general thug, though he also insists on making her wear pretty dresses (yuck!) and trying to marry her off to some old ugly dude (urrr!). Being a Good Person, Katsa is unhappy about all this violence she is forced to commit, so has managed to set up some kind of secret international network of do-gooders, the Council. It is during a Council-mandated rescue mission that Katsa gets involved in a deeper mystery - someone had kidnapped the elderly father of a neighbouring king, but why? Aided by an Enigmatic Prince, she sets off to find out... and suddenly the book stops being annoying, and actually becomes quite good.
I'm not entirely sure how this transformation came about. The first half of the book was a real struggle to get through, consisting largely of Katsa's constant whining about how her life is So Unfair, and court politics so simplistic that it makes Robin Hobb look like a Machiavellian strategist; the second half was a compelling and decently paced adventure with a sympathetic and capable heroine. It's like a whole different author took over. It had always been a bit hard to credit how a stroppy, unstable teenager like Katsa had managed to set up a continent-wide spy network, even given the implausibility of the existing political structure, but with the Katsa that emerges in the second half, it doesn't seem so far-fetched after all. Patchy writing, maybe, but better late than never, say I. Time away from the courts also gives some much-needed distance from the silly non-politics, and instead we get more action and an interesting streak of darkness. Happily, the storyline is all wrapped up at the end, too - if a trilogy is planned, Cashore is not relying on any cheesy cliffhangers to pull us in.
Apart from Katsa's initial characterisation and the overly simple background, the only other real flaw in the book is the names. Surprisingly, Katsa is far from being the silliest name in the book; there are plenty of others that are much, much worse. King Thigpen? Prince Tealiff? Prince Po? King Randa himself, who lives in Randa City, capital of the Middluns? Do the cities (and roads) all change names every time a new king takes over? Still, at least Cashore doesn't go making up daft fantasy words for things like beer and horses, and once you get past your initial smirks, the names aren't too bad. Overall, after a shaky start, I was pleasantly surprised by this, and certainly wouldn't object to reading more of Cashore's work in future.