As far as family-friendly girl fantasy goes, this is ok. I'd recommend it to younglings new to the fantasy genre, readers of light action/adventure/fantasy, and fans of Tamora Pierce. In fact, this is the audiobook that you take with you on a family roadtrip wherein you are stuck in the car for five days with an 8-year-old, an 11-year-old and a 16-year-old. There's violence but it's mostly "We're learning to be fighters" or "bad people made me do this." There's sex, yes, and it's pre-marital which is sort of a focal point, but it's also not obvious if you're not aware of what boys and girls do after kissing. It's like old romance novels where they kiss, there is clothing coming off, there's some smiling into each other's eyes and then the next day dawns sunny and bright with everyone happy. It's that kind of sex which is to say it's safe for the 8 year-old and romantic for the 16-year-old (unless the 16-year-old is like I was at that age, in which case she'll be vomiting in the backseat and not just from car-sickness. I've always hated romance and the romance in this one is nauseating)
If you've been steeping in fantasy for 30+ years, this might come across as pandering, irritating, high-handed, and maybe even boring. Yes, there's an epic quest. Yes, there is fighting and plenty of it. Yes, there is a strong female character who is all "No man will own me!" All good elements. There's also a ton of dull dialogue, a lot of pointless thinking during travel (I'm not saying girls shouldn't think, I'm saying readers shouldn't be subjected to the same three lines of thought over and over for pages and pages. 10 minutes of Why I Don't Want To Ever Get Married No Matter What every CD for 3 CDs is a bit much. I got it the first time. Stop. Think about something else and NOT how you can't believe this guy likes you but what does it mean to be a lover instead of a wife and how is that going to work OR how you don't belong to any man because you're your own person. I am up on that, too, so let's just move on) and their actual quest is rather boring. Come to think of it, Katsa's boring. She's like a focused, badass Kristen Stewart. All front, no personality.
I have to go back to the "I will NEVER marry" stuff. I'm all for this idea but I didn't understand why this message was so important. I didn't feel that this world forced marriage upon women but maybe it does? I think Raffin is probably gay but there is no gay marriage, from what I can tell. So marriage is a thing for men and women but I couldn't tell if it was expected or mandated, ergo, I couldn't tell if Katsa's refusal to marry was a huge, shocking thing or just something that people were like, "Oh. Well. We thought you would get married eventually because it's not like you have land or a job other than being a hired killer, sooo...guess we were wrong." The only people who are upset by her constant assertation are the people who worry for her future (because once you're not a hired killer, where do you go and how do you live?) and the one guy who thought he was going to marry her. So how much of a statement for female liberation is really in place? Who knows.
I completely support women not getting married. I don't think anyone should have to spend their lives, incomes, property, time, bed, body, what have you with another person if they don't want to. Hell, I said I was never going to get married (and then I did. Twice. Because I'm a sucker) and if I succeed in killing Gabe and burying him in the garden, I really will not marry again. There's nothing wrong with being unmarried and, frankly, marriage can be a giant pain in the ass, much more so than being unmarried. Thus, I'm not all, "Oh, no no no! This anti-marriage agenda is not going to fly in MY cd player!" No, it was her constant assertion that she would never marry and my lack of understanding as to why that was soooo important that made me want to yell:
Then there was the whole running around the countryside with the rescued princess (what? A rescued princess? Oh, she's 10, so it's ok) that sort of just kept going...and going...and going...omg, it's STILL going. That got tedious. And then BIGGER SPOILER: po' Po got all blinded and decided to live in a cabin in the mountains as a result. Why? Why is he going to live in a cabin in the mountains because he's lost his sight? In fact, I really don't understand why his secret grace is such a big deal, especially not after seeing how his family works. I know what HE said and what his mother thought but, no, I didn't believe it for a bit. It seems that he could easily have said, "Oh, I hit my head, went blind, and now my other senses are filling in. It's probably part of my supposed fighting grace remanifesting itself" and everyone would have been all, "Oh. Ok. That makes sense. Sorry to hear about your blindness" and that would be that. All the HIDE ALL THE GRACES! didn't make any sense to me and that made the story fall apart.
Adding to all that is the Full Cast Audio performance. Man, I hate those things. I didn't realize that's what this was until I popped it into the CD player. Unless they're radio productions (think Star Wars), these audiobooks often come across as disjointed and jarring because there's the narrator and then all the different voice actors for the different characters and they read at different paces and there are weird pauses between dialogues and...ugh. Some people really like all that and it helps them get into the story. I don't like it and it keeps me out of the story.
Again, I would enthusiastically recommend this to beginning or light fantasy readers and to fans of Tamora Pierce. I would not recommend it to cynical curmudgeons like myself.