It seems odd but it turns out that I ended both 2011 and 2012 with the first in a YA trilogy. Kristin Cashore doesn't spend too much time world building, instead letting the reader's imagination/familiarity with other fantasy and historical periods fill in lots of the details. Her main character, Katsa (what is it with female heroines with "Kat" in their name) is the niece of one of the Kings of the Seven Kingdoms (there are the five main ones whose names are basically variations of middle, south, north, east and west, and then the island kingdom and the kingdom over the mountains). In this world, some people are "graced" with special skills, and they can be distinguished because their eyes are different colors (Katsa has one green and one blue). The skills change from person to person; for example, some might be really good at swimming, or cooking, or other things such as that. Katsa is graced with killing, and her uncle uses her as an enforcer, sending her throughout the realm to make examples of people that have broken the law or disobeyed him in one way or another.
However, Katsa doesn't enjoy being an enforcer, and she and her cousin have set up a secret council that tries to counterbalance some of the king's wrong doings. More importantly, the council extends into other kingdoms so that the council has been able to help out in varios kingdoms that all seem to be mismanaged by power hungry kings. During one council mission to save a kidnapped prince, Katsa stumbles across another graceling who appears to have superb combat skills as his talent. He ends up tracking her back to the palace, and introduces himself as Prince Po, seventh son of the island king. Katsa and Po develop a friendship, partially because Po is the only person that has come even close to giving Katsa a challenge during combatives training. They work together to determine why the prince was kidnapped, and their discoveries and suspicions lead them on a mission to some of the other kingdoms.
It's probably not a surprise to hear that there is a bit of a romance in the novel, but I liked Cashore's approach and while it was obvious, it also developed somewhat organically instead of just being the usual love at first sight story, and it is based on more than simple attraction. Katsa has long been wary of her grace but as the novel progresses she begins to discover good things about it, and changes her view of herself as a savage killer and thug. This is the first in a trilogy though from what I've heard it is less of a trilogy and more of a series of three interrelated novels with different main characters. I like this idea because while I'm sure there is more to Katsa's story, I feel like it concludes in a good place for her. Therefore I'm perfectly okay with the idea of her simply showing up as supporting character or guest star in one of the other novels because too much more of her would probably only take away from the conclusion of this novel.