Thursday, October 16, 2008

Run, Don't Walk, to Get Your Hands on These!

I read three books over the past week that are the kind you finish with a groan because you don't want them to end. On top of that, they each end with, if not a cliffhanger, at least a heart-in-your-throat, what-happens-next question. Even worse, they're all the first book in the series, which means waiting months (I'm avoiding the y- word!) to find out. I'm absolutely positive it will be worth the wait, but it's going to be hard.

All of these rate 5Q 5P, Audience: J/S

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

In the Seven Kingdoms, there are those who are Graced, and they are marked by their eyes, which do not match. Graces vary. Perhaps the grace is knowing what someone will say, or perhaps it is the ability to tie knots. Some Graces are valuable, some are not. Some save lives. Some take lives.

Katsa discovered what her Grace was at the age of eight, when a relative made an improper advance and her instinctive response resulted in his death. Since then, her uncle, the king, has used her to teach a lesson to those who displease him. Those who are Graced have always made the non-Graced uncomfortable, but when one is Graced with the ability to kill, the discomfort turns to fear. Katsa's only friends are her cousin, her maid, and her trainer Giddon. Amost everyone else avoids even looking at her.

Katsa loathes her role as killer/enforcer to the King. She desperately wants to find a way to help people instead of hurt them. And so she creates the Council, a secret group of people determined to help those who have in some way been wronged. When the father of the king of Leinid is kidnapped, the Council tracks him down and Katsa rescues him. But who is behind the kidnapping, and why did s/he do it? Those questions are not so easily answered.

One person nearly foils Katsa's rescue, and that person comes looking for her. Is Prince Po, son of the Leinid king, a friend or a foe? Unsure of the answer, Katsa still joins with him on a quest to discover the truth behind the kidnapping. In all her years of training, only Po, Graced with combat skills, has ever come close to challenging her. His challenges don't come only on the training field. He challenges what she knows of herself and what she believes of herself. Is she really the cold killing machine she imagines herself to be? There are many discoveries ahead for Katsa, not least that she isn't as friendless and coldhearted as she imagined herself to be.

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Told in two voices, this book is a book that will leave you gasping for air. The tension is that relentless. Sadima's story, told in third person, details a world in which magic has been forbidden and forgotten. Even so, those who can't afford real healers rely on fakes in times of need. Sadima's mother died giving birth to her with the aid of a "magician" who then stole the family's valuables and left newborn Sadima on the floor in her dead mother's arms. Understandably, Sadima's father and brother hate "magicians" and even the idea of magic. Sadima knows they will never believe her if she tells them the truth she's known since birth: she can communicate with animals. This bit of magic brings her to the attention of Somiss, a young nobleman who is determined to bring magic back to their world, and Franklin, his servant/friend. As soon as she is able, Sadima joins the young men. She dreams of being able to share her abilities freely, but she soon realizes that, as sympathetic and kind as Franklin is, he will always bow to his master, Somiss. And Somiss is not kind, and he is not sympathetic. His dedication to reviving magic is all-consuming and dangerous.

Hahp's first person description of a world in which magic now exists is chilling and unrelentingly grim. Though Franklin and Somiss dreamed of a time when magic would be used to help people, it is only the wealthy who seem to have access to it. Wizards have a fearsome reputation. Families who bring their sons to the wizard academy are told they will never see them again. Once the families leave, the boys learn why: in each class, only one student (if that) will become a wizard. The others will die. They are forbidden to help each other. Hahp learns to use the magic to get food, but will it be enough to keep him alive? His struggle isn't only physical. Can he bear watching the other boys slowly starve to death, knowing he could help them if only he dared?
The link between Sadima and Hahp slowly becomes clear, but both their stories are unresolved at the end. It was achingly hard to close the book and leave these two characters in their desperate straits behind.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Collins is well known for her Gregor the Overlander series for elementary and middle school students. The theme and level of violence in this book marks it for older readers (middle school and up).

Decades ago, the Districts rebelled against the Capitol. They've paid the price ever since, in the form of the Hunger Games. Every year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12-18 from each of the twelve districts are brought to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games. This is Survivor for real. The players must outwit, outplay, and outlast the other twenty-three players, because this is a duel to the death. The entire country watches every move the players make. The Game creators manipulate every facet of the game to make it more exciting for the viewers. The uglier the kills, the better. The Game is brutal, and players do what they must in order to make sure they're the one to survive. Katniss and Peeta are District 12's contestants.

Katniss has years of experience hunting to feed her family. She's confident she can survive, at least for a while. Peeta is the baker's son. He's got the survival skills of a newborn kitten. Katniss doesn't know Peeta well, but she owes him: he once saved her family from starvation. And Peeta...well, Peeta had his reasons for giving Katniss the bread that day, even though it earned him a beating. He is willing to endure much more for Katniss. How can they kill each other? And yet, they must. First, though, the other twenty-two players have to die. What then?

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