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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.

Sincerely,

Janine

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

11 Comments

  1. KMont
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 14:49:54

    Loved your review! I’m like you in that I enjoyed Graceling more than Fire, so I wasn’t sure either that Bitterblue would be for me. I like how you break it down, though, so I might have to give it a go just to see.

    *Yet her determination to learn and do better won’t quit, and that is a big piece of what makes her heroic.*

    Flaws are such an important part of developing a character IMO. In Fire, I felt the heroine was a little too perfect (at the time it didn’t occur to me that her confusion on how to act sometimes was a flaw, but I get that now). You don’t need only compelling issues to make the plot better, the characters are better if they struggle within themselves as well. It’s frustrating when that level of depth isn’t bothered with.

    I have only read the first Turner/Attolia/Queen’s Thief book, but it reminded me of Cashore’s work as well.

  2. Rebecca
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 16:09:14

    Bitterblue reminded me very much of Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock, which did a perfect job of translating what it must feel like to be a refugee to YA fiction. I agree that Bitterblue is definitely more ambitious than Graceling or Fire, but I am not entirely convinced that Cashore succeeds in all her ambitions. I thought much of it was superb, but I had trouble with the pacing. It was all confusion! confusion! confusion! until it wasn’t. The sneaking out of the castle bit was a little cliche, and I wanted Bitterblue to meet more people or learn more from it than I felt like she did.

    But, I hear from someone who went to an author event that Cashore is not finished writing about the Seven Kingdoms, which is good news to me!

  3. Jennifer Estep
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 16:16:26

    I’ve been looking forward to this one. I really enjoyed GRACELING, but I didn’t like FIRE nearly as much so I’m glad to see a good review for BITTERBLUE.

  4. Marg
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 16:29:24

    I am reading this at the moment and very much enjoying it! I was very surprised at what a big book Bitterblue is but it is reading pretty fast!

    I do hope that Cashore is writing more set in this world as it is interesting and there seems to be plenty of scope for stories to be developed!

  5. Lexxie
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 16:36:18

    I just finished reading Bitterblue myself, and I agree with your review, it was better than Fire, and a lot of things made more sense as well in this book.

    I thought it was a relief to read a YA story where romance was not really a part of the plot, but other, more important things were on the forefront.

  6. hapax
    Jun 13, 2012 @ 20:44:03

    Ah, I was fonder of FIRE than most of the others here, but partly that’s due to my reading it as a close analysis of what it would REALLY mean to be a stereotypical Mary Sue (spoiler: lo, verily it doth suck).

    But BITTERBLUE is the one that really gripped me. Partly, because like Janine, I saw such vivid echos of South Africa and Germany after the Holocaust in the story; partly because of the themes of truth and lies (and codes and translations, and how much language shapes our understanding of what is “true”); but mostly because of Bitterblue herself.

    I fell in love with her in GRACELING, and her fierceness, compassion, determination, and pride in her own story absolutely enthralled me.

    And [spoiler space]
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    [for realz this time]
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    I lovelovelove how in the trilogy Cashore showed us that healthy committed romantic relationships (both heterosexual and homosexual) can involve marriage or not, but aren’t necessary for making a woman happy and whole.

  7. Janine
    Jun 14, 2012 @ 08:38:30

    @KMont: I agree completely that flaws are an important piece of characterization, and internal conflict makes a character come alive. And yeah, I thought Fire was a bit too good to be true as well.

    The Attolia/Thief series books get a lot more grown up and complex after The Thief. I didn’t fall in love with them until book 2 so I encourage you to keep reading.

    @Rebecca: I didn’t like Finnikin of the Rock to the same degree as Bitterblue, but I can see the similarity. Both books have elements of allegory, but I found Finnikin more heavy handed.

    Re. the pacing in Bitterblue, it worked for me. It had the structure of a mystery, with clues coming out throughout the story and everything being pieced together at the end.

    Re. the sneaking out of the castle, I loved that she used that trope. I’m most familiar with it from the Thousand and One Nights (aka Arabian Nights) fairy tale Princess Parizade in which a king dresses like a commoner and goes among his people to hear what they are saying about him, and there he meets a young woman he marries (the story goes on long after that, and follows their kids, especially a heroic daughter). It’s a great trope but I haven’t actually seen it used much — maybe I missed some books that used it?

    Anyway, I love the way Cashore took that trope and reversed the genders so that it was a queen who dressed like a commoner and mingled with her people, and she falls for a common guy. It made me think about the trope– traditionally, marrying a king was a huge step up for a woman and one we accept as romantic, but by switching genders, Cashore showed how limiting marrying a monarch could be for someone’s independence and their sense of their own identity.

    @Jennifer Estep: I hope you enjoy it!

    @Marg: I thought it read fast too. Like Rebecca I heard there’s a good chance of more stories set in this world, and I really want more now too.

    @Lexxie: Agreed.

    @hapax:

    I fell in love with her in GRACELING, and her fierceness, compassion, determination, and pride in her own story absolutely enthralled me.

    I love what you say about Bitterblue here. She was a great character. Agree with your spoiler — and in the context of this book especially, it worked so well.

  8. Janine
    Jun 14, 2012 @ 08:38:30

    @KMont: I agree completely that flaws are an important piece of characterization, and internal conflict makes a character come alive. And yeah, I thought Fire was a bit too good to be true as well.

    The Attolia/Thief series books get a lot more grown up and complex after The Thief. I didn’t fall in love with them until book 2 so I encourage you to keep reading.

    @Rebecca: I didn’t like Finnikin of the Rock to the same degree Bitterblue, but I can see the similarity. Both books have elements of allegory, but I found Finnikin more heavy handed.

    Re. the pacing in Bitterblue, it worked for me. It had the structure of a mystery, with clues coming out throughout the story and everything being pieced together at the end.

    Re. the sneaking out of the castle, I loved that she used that trope. I’m most familiar with it from the Thousand and One Nights (aka Arabian Nights) fairy tales Princess Parizade in which a king dresses like a commoner and goes among his people to hear what they are saying about him, and there he meets a young woman he marries (the story goes on long after that, and follows their kids, especially a heroic daughter). It’s a great trope but I haven’t actually seen it used much — maybe I missed some books that used it?

    Anyway, I love the way Cashore took that trope and reversed the genders so that it was a queen who dressed like a commoner and mingled with her people, and she falls for a common guy. It made me think about the trope– traditionally, marrying a king was a huge step up for a woman and one we accept as romantic, but by switching genders, Cashore showed how limiting marrying a monarch could be for someone’s independence and their sense of their own identity.

    @Jennifer Estep: I hope you enjoy it!

    @Marg: I thought it read fast too. Like Rebecca I heard there’s a good chance of more stories set in this world, and I really want more now too.

    @Lexxie: Agreed.

    @hapax:

    I fell in love with her in GRACELING, and her fierceness, compassion, determination, and pride in her own story absolutely enthralled me.

    I love what you say about Bitterblue here. She was a great character. Agree with your spoiler — and in the context of this book especially, it worked so well.

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  10. Raylo
    Sep 26, 2012 @ 09:09:46

    Am I the only one a bit disappointed with the romance?

    Saf just comes back out of nowhere, completely forgiving and they have sex.

    Really? For a man so proud and self assured that was kinda weak and mary sue like that he just comes around like that.

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