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Kristin Cashore

REVIEW:  Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

REVIEW: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Dear Ms. Cashore,

While I really liked your debut YA fantasy, Graceling, I was less keen on your second novel, Fire. Graceling had a strong heroine, Lady Katsa, who, along with the man she grew to love, sought to rescue a child princess from an evil king, guarding her independence the whole way, but Lady Fire, the heroine of Fire, was less engaging.

Bitterblue by Kristin CashoreFire had a background and circumstances that should have made her more compelling than Katsa, but she was goalless and confused about what she wanted or ought to do for much of her story, and that was one of the things that made your second novel feel slow and episodic rather than well paced and cohesive.

For these reasons, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy Bitterblue, your third novel in this same series. Bitterblue’s main character is the girl Katsa rescued in Graceling. Now eighteen years old, Queen Bitterblue reigns over Monsea from her castle in Bitterblue City, but the reality is that in most ways, Bitterblue is a figurehead.

Bitterblue’s four advisors, Thiel, Runnemood, Darby and Rood, men who once advised her father, have been running Bitterblue City and the kingdom of Monsea for their charge ever since Bitterblue ascended the throne at age ten. Though busy reviewing and signing a constant stream of paperwork and only occasionally free to do something interesting like observe a trial, Bitterblue senses that all is not well in her domain.

One night, after a day of frustration, Bitterblue sneaks out into her city garbed in a servant’s clothing. She ends up in a tavern beneath one of the bridges, a story room where people get up to tell stories. The stories are true, they are tales about Bitterblue’s father, King Leck, an evil graceling who used his mental powers to manipulate and deceive his people. They are tales about Lady Katsa, who killed King Leck and brought his frightening reign to an end. And they are tales that repeat strange stories Leck himself told.

Bitterblue finds herself drawn to the story room, and she sneaks out night after night. It is at the story room that Bitterblue meets Teddy and Saf. Teddy, it turns out, is a printer and publisher, while Saf is a thief. But Saf is no ordinary thief, for one night on her way home Bitterblue observes him stealing a gargoyle from her own castle. She is puzzled as to who would want such a thing, and why.

When Teddy is attacked and nearly killed, Bitterblue brings the castle’s healer to his aid. Saf is both grateful and angry – the people of the castle are no friends to Teddy and his truth-seeking cause. Bitterblue feels attracted to Saf, and she has been thinking of him and of Teddy as her friends. But are they her friends, or her enemies? And if someone is attacking them and others of the city’s “truthseekers” who is that person, and what is the motive behind these attacks?

Meanwhile, Bitterblue’s graceling cousin Po and his lover Katsa arrive at the castle, along with some of their council allies. Bitterblue has missed Katsa and Po horribly and she hopes they can help her get to the truth. But Po is trapped in his own web of lies, since he cannot reveal the truth of his grace to the world without endangering himself. Po’s conflict between truth and lies makes Bitterblue aware that she too has deceived her new friends as to who and what she is.

Can Bitterblue be a true friend to Teddy, and perhaps even something more to Saf? Or does her deception regarding her own identity make such friendships a sham? What about Po’s friendships and other relationships? And what about Bitterblue’s relationship with the advisors who practically raised her and with the castle’s staff, much less her relationship with the Monsean people?

How is Bitterblue to heal her kingdom from the damage done to her people by her father and his lies? Does the answer lie in respecting the tormented survivors’ need to let the past be, or in exhuming Leck’s crimes and the resultant trauma? Can Bitterblue become a truth-seeker herself, or does her role of queen proscribe her from hearing and learning the truth? Does she, Leck’s own daughter, truly want to know it?

These are the questions at the heart of Bitterblue, and I loved that it made me think about so many issues relating to lies and truth, and also, about the role of stories and storytelling in healing. Bitterblue is a complex, intricately plotted and magnificent book. While I liked Graceling very much and was disappointed in Fire, I feel that ultimately Bitterblue is not only more ambitious than those books, but also better executed than either of them.

One of the reasons why is that Bitterblue is more structurally and thematically cohesive: it begins with Bitterblue’s goal to learn how to heal her kingdom and ends with that healing process underway. At its center also lies the mystery of who is suppressing the truth and why, and as in a good mystery, clues slowly accumulate until the question is finally answered.

Another of the reasons why is the central character: Bitterblue may be determined to become a better queen and to heal her kingdom, but she is not without flaws like impatience and imperiousness, and weaknesses like moments when she feels defeated or uncertain as to what the right path is. Yet her determination to learn and do better won’t quit, and that is a big piece of what makes her heroic.

Bitterblue is also coming of age tale – not just about gains, but also about losses. Growing up isn’t always easy for Bitterblue, not because she lacks maturity, but because the truths she has to uncover in order to figure out what needs to be done for her kingdom are painful.

Along the way she is aided by memorable side characters – some familiar faces from Graceling among them, and some new ones as well. The dead Leck emerges as a more complete person here – if in Graceling he was simply evil, and in Fire he was a boy already capable of evil, here we not only see much of the damage he did, but also learn some of his reasons for wreaking it.

Then there are those secondary characters who thwart Bitterblue in the here and now, also memorable and distinct, though I will refrain from naming them because the knowledge of who is Bitterblue’s friend and who is her foe is deliberately concealed from the reader for much of the book.

Bitteblue is therefore also a fantasy about gaining political agency in the midst of court intrigue. I read this book with my husband and at one point he paid it the compliment of comparing it to Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia, another intricately plotted novel in which hidden truths and concealed deceptions are wound together and intrigue and assassination attempts abound. I must love this kind of story because I loved this aspect of both books.

Beyond all that, though, Bitterblue is a story about the thorny issue of national trauma. As I read, I found myself thinking about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and about my late grandmother’s refusal to discuss her Holocaust experiences. Truth and storytelling have an important role to play in healing nations, but for individuals, sometimes keeping silent is preferable to examining their past suffering.

I loved that Bitterblue did not refute either of these contradictory truths. I loved that it did not offer up platitudes or easy answers either for Monsea’s troubles or for Bitterblue’s.

As appropriate to the YA fantasy genre, Bitterblue was successful in becoming a better queen to her people. She ultimately did a better job of that than most eighteen year old girls in our own world could do, and at times it was a bit of a stretch to believe that she could handle this task as well as she did. But as appropriate to the themes of the story, accomplishing this was not a simple job, nor one that would ever be completed, and it had its costs.

Bitterblue is occasionally melancholy (though no more so than the two books that preceded it) and it is also less romantic than either Graceling or Fire. Some of those readers who read YA novels mainly for the romance may find this disappointing. I thought it was fitting and appropriate, given Bitterblue’s youth, her political position, and the national importance of the issues she had to grapple with. For me, there was just enough romance to help keep the book from getting too heavy, and not enough to overpower the other themes. A.



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What Janine is Reading — April and May 2012

What Janine is Reading — April and May 2012

My hot reading streak in February and March turned into a reading slump in April. For a little while there, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into anything I picked up. I couldn’t even tell you guys what I tried to read at that time, because I didn’t make it far into anything and everything seemed forgettable.

Eventually I had enough of that and decided to try to see if I could revive my enthusiasm for reading by rereading books that had been hard to put down in the past. I picked two of my favorite Nalini Singhs, Caressed by Ice and Archangel’s Blade, and while neither one was as enjoyable as they’d been the first time around, they were still fun enough to restore my enthusiasm for reading.

Back in my reading groove, I read the following books:

Rainshadow Road Lisa KleypasRainshadow Road by Lisa Kleypas

This was my first full-length Kleypas in years (I really need to backtrack and read her Travis series sometime). I had read Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, but before that, nothing since Devil in Winter. Rainshadow Road, the story of a glass artist dumped by her boyfriend for her younger sister and a commitment-shy vintner, was enjoyable and different, though not perfect.

I liked the quirky community in which the story was situated. Details like the bikers and their church, the house being renovated, and the heroine’s brusque innkeeper friend, made this book come alive in a way that many contemporaries don’t manage to do for me. I agree with those who said that the magical realism was not always well-integrated into the story, and I also felt the romance itself was rushed. On the whole though, this book was quite enjoyable. C+/B-



The Shape of Desire by Sharon ShinnThe Shape of Desire by Sharon Shinn

I have a hard time articulating why, but I couldn’t progress more than a chapter or two into this book, and I am a huge fan of Sharon Shinn’s earlier works. This happened to me once before with another of her books, Fortune and Fate. If I had to pin down a reason, I would say it has a lot to do with both the characters, and the lack of a strong plot hook.

The Shape of Desire, Shinn’s first urban fantasy, opens with a reunion between Maria and her boyfriend, the shape-changing Dante. Dante, we learn, has no control over his shape changing and for that reason his life and Maria’s are far from normal. For most of the time Dante roams the wild, and Maria worries about him. He can’t hold a normal job, and she can’t introduce him to her friends. We also see Maria with those friends, discussing relationships.

I liked the friends and their lunchtime away from work milieu, but I didn’t feel a connection to Maria or Dante. They were nice enough people, just not interesting. They had some problems, true, but these were not serious enough to make me feel I should care. According to the back blurb a string of murders would make their problems worse, but there was not enough ominous sense of that in the writing. Maria’s happiness that Dante had resurfaced made it hard for me to feel worried for them or even uneasy, so I put this down unfinished. DNF.


Gaijin by Remittance GirlGaijin by Remittance Girl

Set in Japan, Gaijin is the story of an English waitress kidnapped and raped by a Japanese mobster. The novella focuses on Jennifer’s captivity and her struggle to survive it. We had an interesting discussion in the comment thread when I reviewed it. Some readers were offended by the idea of such a story, but I felt it examined the fascinating issue of cultural differences and ethnocentrism without in any way justifying or romanticizing rape. Despite feeling more like a slice-of-life vignette than a full-fledged story, Gaijin has stuck with me. Review here.


This was an enjoyable enough Spice Brief from Harlequin, but it didn’t stay with me. The heroine who works on Wall Street, arrives at the hero’s Mexican resort for a brief getaway. He observes her plagued by the phone, sends her a drink at the bar, and later seduces her, all without saying a word. But why won’t he speak?

It was interesting to read a story with so little dialogue and I could almost hear the silence myself. The characters were sympathetic and likable, the writing lovely at times but awkward at other times. This was nice, but not memorable, especially when compared to Hancock’s post-apocalyptic romance novella Ghost in the Machine. Review here.



Dancing on the Wind by Mary Jo PutneyDancing on the Wind by Mary Jo Putney

Recently I reread Putney’s Thunder and Roses, and though I didn’t enjoy it, I decided to see if I could reread the rest of the Fallen Angels series. After all, I used to love these books and also, they’ve been rereleased in electronic editions. It would be good to review them, or so I thought.

Dancing on the Wind is the second book in the series, featuring Lucien and Kit, who meet while he is investigating a group called the Hellions (modeled after the Hellfire Club) in search of a traitor and she is doing the same in order to find her sister’s kidnapper.

I’ve been reading this book for a month and so far I’m at the halfway point. The problem is that as Kit keeps disguising herself and Lucien finds her again and again, each time in a new identity, and each time without pinning down how to find her again, so their relationship is proceeding at a glacial pace. On the upside, I like them both better than I liked the protagonists of Thunder and Roses. Review to come when I finish, or give up on finishing.


Moon Over Soho by Ben AaronovitchMoon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the second book in Aaronovitch’s delightful urban fantasy/police procedural series about Peter Grant, a London constable investigating paranormal crimes. In this one Peter is faced with the death of a string of jazzmen, just as his musician father decides to resume his jazz playing career.

Meanwhile, Peter gets involved with the former girlfriend of one of the dead men, investigates the violent death of a magical practitioner, trades witty quips with his supervisor and makes snarky remarks about London architecture and history. This series is adorable. If you haven’t tried them yet, what are you waiting for? Midnight Riot is the first book. As for Moon Over Soho, the review can be found here.



Overseas by Beatriz Williams

This time travel was, as Jane has said, nothing if not romantic, but at the same time, it felt like a flight of wish-fulfillment fantasy. The pages turned very quickly as I kept reading to get to the bottom of the mystery of what was keeping the protagonists apart. I had a thoroughly enjoyable time but at the end, was left wishing for a little more substance and grounding in the World War I era.

Part of the problem was that the hero was just too perfect – a viscount, a brilliant student, athletic, gorgeous, chivalrous, a wall street titan, and a poet of literary greatness as well? Where do they make them like this, except in women’s fantasies? With all that going for him, it was difficult to understand why he fell so hard for the heroine. Still, he was lovely, and I like a Cinderella story as much as the next person. The romanticism and sheer fun of this book isn’t to be denied. B.



Shadow and Bone by Leigh BardugoShadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

This historical fantasy set in an alternate Russia started off wonderfully. Alina, an orphan who was raised with her best friend Mal, is plucked from obscurity when it’s discovered that she is a Sun Summoner – the only person who can free her country from the dark and horrifying rift known as the Shadow Fold.

Separated from Mal and brought to the stronghold of the Grisha, powerful magic users, she is trained in using her abilities, a task made difficult by her own suppression of her gifts. Alina misses Mal horribly, and wonders if he’s forgotten about her, even as she’s drawn to the leader of the Grisha, a fascinating man known as the Darkling.

Bardugo has a very engaging voice and I was loving this book until two thirds of the way through when a turn was taken in the story that sucked a lot of the complexity out of it. I kept reading to the end, but wished this one thing could be undone because it was so disappointing and without it, the book could have been marvelous. Review here.



Fire by Kristin CashoreFire by Kristin Cashore

Cashore’s follow-up to Graceling was less engaging than its predecessor. Whereas Katsa was an active character with a mission, Fire, the heroine of the novel of the same name, was more passive and aimless. True, she had interesting mental powers tied to her matchless beauty, a good backstory and a great deal of selflessness, but none of that was enough to make me turn the pages as fast as I did with Graceling, and reading the story made me feel melancholy and even morose. Cashore’s writing is lovely, but also has a youthful innocence to it that didn’t fit the subject matter well here. All in all, I could take or leave this one. C.


Bitterblue by Kristin CashoreBitterblue by Kristin Cashore

This is the third book in the same YA fantasy series and I thought it was better than either Graceling or Fire. It’s the story of an eighteen year old queen trying to take control of her reign and heal her kingdom from the national trauma inflicted by her late father when he was king.

There’s also a romantic subplot — Bitterblue sneaks out at night and befriends two young men while pretending to be a baker girl. One of them is a thief whom she spies stealing one of her castle’s gargoyles. She starts to fall for him, but he doesn’t know who she really is and she doesn’t know if he’s an enemy of hers.

Bitterblue discovers in the process that someone is harming her kingdom’s “truthseekers,” people who want to uncover the truth about her father’s misdeeds, and there’s a mystery over who it is that is trying to suppress the truth and what that person has to hide.

The themes of truth vs. lies, memory vs. moving on, discoveries and concealments, and the healing power of storytelling were so well integrated into this book. The characters were sympathetic yet real and the mystery at the center of the plot was compelling. The melancholy was leavened with humor. It is one of the most impressive YA novels I’ve read. Review to come.



What are you guys reading? If you’ve read any of the books I mention above, what did you think of them? And when you have reading slumps, what do you do to break out of them?