Graceling, the debut novel from Kristin Cashore, is a must-read for Tamora Pierce graduates. Set in a fantastical, somewhat medieval world, the protagonist, Katsa, is one of the people who have what is called a grace, which is essentially just an extraordinary talent. Many people in this world have graces, but most are basically useless. Katsa's, however, is presented as a grace for killing people. Things get interesting when a dashing young man with his own mysterious grace is introduced, and Katsa begins to fall in love. One thing I really enjoyed about this novel, particularly amidst all the Twilight craziness, was that novel centers around a romantic relationship that thrives on the equality of the two people in love. Both are strong, both are talented, yet it is their separate strengths that compliment one another, creating a bond forged in mutual need (though, not dependence, and important distinction). I was also thrilled (thrilled) to find a sex scene in a fantasy novel in which birth control is used. It might seem silly to harp on such a small detail, but it was very contemporary moments like that, which steer Cashore clear of many fantasy novel cliches. It's also just refreshing to see sex presented as the perfect confluence of love and responsibility, not just as something that begets offspring. Kudos to Cory Doctorow, for using birth control in Little Brother, as well. The climactic battle against the evil king (yes, there's an evil king) is ultimately Katsa's battle, however, and she does it sans lover (who is hiding out in a cabin by himself as he goes blind, fighting his own battle). Though Katsa's narrative voice can be a little distant, it serves the complex plot of this very enjoyable story well, making it a great, escapist read.
I admit, I was reluctant, even after several glowing recommendations, to read Eon: Dragoneye reborn. Firstly, I have mostly departed the stage of my life in which dragons hold much interest. Secondly, the cover (which, upon reading the novel, I realized is actually perfect for the content) turned me off. Wrong I was. That's what I get for judging a book by it's cover, I suppose. It took me maybe about 50 pages to get into the novel, since the beginning is mostly descriptions of technical-sounding sword-fighting practice sequences. But as soon as I realized that this seemingly male narrator was suffering from 'moon cycles' I realized this was a much more interesting endeavor than I had given it credit for. From then on, I was hooked. Minimal dragons and maximum intrigue make the world of Eon one wrought with political skulduggery, personal vendettas and a full cast of eunuchs, drag queens and other such genderfull fun. And like the Bartimaeus Trilogy and Thirsty, it has the ending the story demands, depicting a very frank and terrifying apocalyptic coup d'etat. In the last hundred or so pages, I amended my previous assessment of age range on the book, due to the incredible graphic descriptions of beheaded corpses of friends, and the execution of a mother and her baby. It's not a direct line between the crowd that like Paolini's trilogy to Eon, but it may actually reach the less fantasy-genre inclined group of readers, which is really saying something for a book co-starring dragons.
Lastly, there was Hunger Games, the first book in what will be a trilogy, and already named NYT top 10 for 2008. Hunger Games is a perfectly paced, thrilling read, perfectly suited for voracious and reluctant readers alike. The plot moves ahead at breakneck speed, but it is the socio-economic commentary that really make this novel interesting. In the post-apocalyptic world of Hunger Games, 24 children are selected by lottery every year from the 12 different districts to fight to the death. The wealthy districts can afford to train their kids, and so it is typically those districts who prevail in the fights. The poorest districts, such as the agricultural district and the coal-mining district (where the novel's heroine, Katniss hails from) almost always lose. But Katniss refuses to go so easily, and her fight for survival is a riveting read that, like Eon, sets up for the next book perfectly. As she fights, more is learned about the different districts, and Collins' depiction of the agricultural district asks particular pertinent questions about many of the industrialized agricultural industries that set our tables. And it seems like every kid I've turned this on to comes back to the store with that crazy look in their eye, asking when the next installment will come out. Like my kid reviewer Gabe aptly wrote: "If you like books about kids fighting to the death, then this is the book for you." Right you are Gabe, right you are.