Graceling, by Kristin Cashore, is set in a fairly standard, low-magic fantasy world, except instead of traditional magic, the world contains people who are very occasionally born with a grace. A grace is a preternatural ability for anything from baking bread or whistling to fighting or mind reading. Gracelings are recognized because at some point in childhood, their eyes change so that each eye is a different color. Once that happens, in the country of Middluns, they become the property of the King.
This story is told from the point of view of the King's niece, Katsa, who has a grace for killing and has been used as the King's enforcer. It's definitely a twist. She's both the beautiful damsel and the brutal, antisocial thug.
When the story starts, she is getting tired torturing and killing, but continues to obey the king, even though she knows the things he asks her to do are wrong. She's goes on secret, self-appointed missions to do good in ways that don't conflict with explicit orders. On one of them, she meets another graceling fighter, Po, who is a catalyst for her to wake up, both in terms of gaining agency and also developing her emotions.
In the beginning I thought the plot would be a revolutionary tale with the evil king as the obvious villain, but Cashore avoids that, and the story unfolds in a different direction. The adventure is great though. I can imagine that decades later, the story of her crossing the mountain will become legend. And the the romance arc is exquisite.
It's a very atypical coming of age story, especially for a female. She already has all the skills she needs she needs in terms of swordplay or survival. There's no powering up on this adventure. And she doesn't go from naive to experienced. She starts out the story both streetwise and politically savvy.
But she definitely grows and learns throughout the book, and the growth is really focused on her agency. She starts off passively-aggressively hating the role into which she'd been placed, but unable to really even imagine the possibility of changing it. The first part of the book is her really waking up and understanding that she is able to choose her own path. As she starts to carve out her own path, she also grows emotionally, learning to understand her own emotions and later fall in love. It's not easy for Katsa. She achieves each incremental bit of emotional growth with dogged determination and a fair amount of struggle. She's really a physical, practical character though, so the emotional arc never devolves into an internal emo pity party. Yay.
And I have to say - I really enjoyed Po. He's charming and wise and patient and humble and cocky all at the same time. He is a perfect match for her and does some growing, too, which saves him from being too perfect.
More in the Graceling Series