Oh Graceling. What a total and unexpected joy you were. From the very first page, with a thrilling opening scene, I loved this book so much more than I thought I would. We learn that in this world some people are born with Graces - great skills that vary from person to person, some rather useless and some incredibly useful. These people stand out from others by their different coloured eyes, and are actually shunned, or rather feared, for their abilities. The main protagonist, Katsa, has a Grace for killing. Or so it would seem.And how I loved Katsa! Grumpy and anti-social, she is a character after my own heart. It's not often you see a character who is so vehemently against social interaction, though here it is partly because of her Grace and the way she is treated for it. Although working for her uncle, being used to torture or injure those whom he dislikes, she begins to rebel against him. Katsa proves herself to be very resourceful and strong-willed, she sticks to her ground and doesn't change her opinions or plans based on others. The best thing of all? She doesn't feel the need to change herself or her future plans for a relationship.Po, whose name unfortunately conjures up images of a certain panda, was also a great character. Although it was obvious what would happen from the moment he was introduced in the story, the interaction between the two characters only served to make me want it to happen, rather than make me sigh in exasperation over any cliched events. Another independently minded character, he matches up to Katsa perfectly and the course of events surrounding him were at times quite surprising. For some reason, despite the description of him as being dark-haired, I still pictured him as looking rather like Fenris from Dragon Age II...Just pop some earrings in and he's all set. (image source)And I mustn't forget Raffin, Katsa's intelligent cousin, or Bitterblue, princess of Monsea. Bitterblue goes through a brilliant transformation in the few months she spends with Katsa and Po: from a shy and terrified to determined and brave, as well as caring. Even the very minor characters gave a strong sense of their personalities through actions or small back stories.If you read my blog often, you probably know I am not one for romance. I don't like it at all as a genre by itself, and it has to be written in a certain way for me to enjoy it as part of another genre. Basically, it has to be natural. No insta-love, no undying declarations after a matter of days. Well I can tell you, the romance in Graceling was perfect: it developed over time, it was caring but not consuming, it was realistic. You know a relationship is well written when you're rooting for the characters, and I really was.Kristin Cashore's writing style, like her character development, is wonderful - easy to read without being over-simplified, beautifully painted landscapes and images, enough background information without piling too much on the reader at once. That's the trouble with writing a fantasy, trying to achieve the correct balance between explaining enough about a new world, and giving away too much at once. Although I would have liked to have known exactly why the Gracelings are feared (I don't think it is ever really fully explained), there was nothing else I felt short of. The plot was well-paced, giving the reader enough time to understand the state of the world, who ruled where, before moving on. There were enough exciting events and slower moments to keep it balanced, and I didn't crave for any extra action.To finish it off: Graceling was an absolutely brilliant read. A proper fantasy tale, with some adventure and a little bit of romance thrown in, I think it would appeal to many - particularly if you've enjoyed the works of authors such as Tamora Pierce, Leigh Bardugo or Maggie Stiefvater. If you've been thinking about reading it: do it!Now I have to wait for Fire, the sequel, to arrive at my library... it's going to be too long a wait!