This book suffered heavily from no-plot syndrome. It's hard to get the right balance between endearing, well fleshed out characters and an interesting, fast-paced, determined, directional plot. Cashore spent way too much time focusing on the former, and almost completely ignored the latter. Certain characters are so real and enthralling that you don't need a complex plot to carry them. This isn't the case with Graceling. Yes, Katsa and Po are very well done, as are some of the other side characters- Bitterblue and Katsa's cousin and uncle, for example. That doesn't compensate for the barely discernable plot to decide to pick up about halfway through the novel. The main antagonist doesn't show up in the story until about 60% of the way, and then he disappears until the end. We don't even know much about him except for hearsay and stories. It feels as though Cashore needed a reason for Po and Katsa to be alone and undertake an epic journey, and she fabricated last a minute, feeble reasoning for it. I didn't feel as though their cause was dire enough for me to remain interested in their plight, pure and simple. Why do I care about these two travelling across their 7 Kingdoms (which suffer completely from non-world-building disease)? There's so much more that could have focused on here, other than what Cashore chose. There must have been a better way to showcase the many different Graces that the inhabitants of this universe enjoy. As it is, we only got to see a scant few, and they were obviously a handful of the most powerful ones.
The other gripe I have here is that Katsa is another female-who-hates-dresses-and-prefers-knives. (Gee, where have we seen this before? This is a brand new trope!!) This could have been the reason that I was largely turned off to this book. I'm so sick and tired of a girl fighter trying to throw off the bonds of femininity. Can't a girl enjoy dresses and makeup AND fighting? Why must the two be mutually exclusive, and why must the character shame those who do enjoy feminine things? I'm honestly ready for this cliche to be over and done with- and to be fair, that might have soured me to Cashore's story.
The good things? I liked Po. He was honest, caring, helpful, and really loved Katsa. Bitterblue was interesting, and I see potential for the next novel. The idea of Gracelings intrigued me as well- that the powers can manifest themselves differently in different people.
All in all, good idea, poor execution. I found myself bored through most of the story, and would have DNF'd it if not for listening to it on audiobook through a long car ride.