Pros: absolutely everything
Cons: you want more, more, more from these characters
I approached Kristin Cashore's Graceling with a bit of skepticism; with an almost-teen in the house, I've read a lot of young adult fantasy, and most of it falls far short of the mark -- underdeveloped characters or an underdeveloped plot -- basically, a lot of short-changing because of the audience. Luckily, Graceling breaks the mold.
::: Plot :::
Katsa is the niece of the King of Middluns, one of seven kingdoms on an island continent. She was born a Graceling: one of the population identified by heterochromatic eyes who has a specific talent. Hers is apparently killing, and she is trained and then used by her uncle as an enforcer in his kingdom. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has also created an underground network where she's more of a superhero, saving people throughout the seven kingdoms who need help.
When she and her Council save the elderly former King of Lienid, she meets Lienid Prince Po, who may be her fighting match and more, and discovers a secret that endangers all of the seven kingdoms. She learns more about herself and her Grace as she joins forces with Po to save the seven kingdoms.
::: Guh :::
I'm that speechless. The plot sounds so trite when I put it in a summary like that, but Katsa is such a complex character and Cashore manages to keep the reader guessing, with plot twists around every corner. Unlike other books in the young adult genre, she handles sexuality without being either crass or fading to black; handles romance with a character who doesn't want to lose her independence without a creampuff happily-ever-after wedding and baby; and writes a compelling plot without shortchanging any of her cast of characters.
At no point do you feel like anything that happens is a cop-out or a deus ex machina, and she's not afraid to have bad things happen to characters you absolutely adore. Even if some of it has been foreshadowed, her plot twists will still leave you gasping, and wanting more from the series, which continues with Fire and the upcoming Bitterblue.
If one book should be used as an example of how to write for this genre, it's Graceling, and I can't wait to read the next book in the series to find out what happens next in the seven kingdoms.