Author: Kristin Cashore
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Dial (US) / Gollancz (UK)
Publication Date: May 2012
Hardcover: 547 Pages
Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck’s reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle—disguised and alone—to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past.
Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart.
Stand alone or series: Book 3 in the Graceling Realm series
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: I loved both Graceling and Fire (surprisingly, I loved the second, companion book more than the first!), and Bitterblue has been very high on my list of coveted books for almost 2 years. I was thrilled when I received a copy in the mail and OF COURSE could not wait to tear into it as soon as humanly possible.
It has been eight years since the cruel reign of King Leck has ended, but the kingdom of Monsea is far from healed. Queen Bitterblue, now 18, has been ruling with the guidance of her trusted advisors and aid from her many friends – especially the Graced Survivor, Katsa, and the blind, mind-reading Po – and things in Monsea have progressed. Or so Bitterblue thinks.
While the immediate terror of Leck’s madness has gone, his legacy of pain and cruelty remains, touching and corrupting the lives of many in the realm, from castle, to city, to its far reaches. Bitterblue, frustrated with the paperwork foisted upon her desk, pile after endless pile, decides to take matters into her own hands and takes to sneaking out of the castle by night. On the streets of Monsea, she discovers that things are not quite as rosy as her advisors would have her think – and that someone is killing those that would seek the truth of Leck’s reign and the inner workings of the palace. With the help of two new friends met outside the palace walls – both of whom know nothing of Bitterblue’s true identity – and her older friends Katsa and Po, Bitterblue strives to uncover the truths behind the mysteries that no one wants to talk about or remember.
And along the way, Bitterblue learns what it means to be a true Monsean, a friend, and a Queen.
The long awaited sequel to Graceling and companion novel to Fire, Bitterblue is a largely unexpected and hard-to-define novel. Weighing in at approximately 550 pages long, it certainly has more heft than its predecessors – but for all that extra length, it’s actually a far more subdued book than either Graceling or Fire. In truth, Bitterblue is an introverted novel about a young Queen struggling to understand the past and separate the truth from the lies that surround her – lies all born of the best intentions. The thing that is so striking about this eponymous protagonist is how truly isolated Bitterblue is – she has friends she loves and trusts, but they are always out and doing the business that keeps Monsea and the rest of the Seven Kingdoms safe. She’s also isolated from understanding just how her kingdom works, what happens in its streets, and how her people truly feel about her, the monarchy, and the future. Even at one point, it becomes clear that Bitterblue knows very little of her own home – the palace is a mystery to her, with her father’s rooms locked to the world and bottled up like a dark secret never to be thought of again, the sprawling grounds, secret passageways, and cavernous mazes left dusty and forgotten.
But Bitterblue is above all curious, and this burning desire to understand and become the best leader for her people is what makes the character, and by extension the novel, memorable. Bitterblue’s characterization as a young queen and young woman is wonderfully complex and genuine – though she’s only 18, you can believe in her ability as a monarch because of her self doubts and her struggle to do the right thing, even when it breaks her heart to do so, for the good of her people and her kingdom.
That said, Bitterblue is also an incredibly conflicted character, starved for companionship and affection (and given her nightmare of a childhood with her abusive, twisted father, one can’t help but feel for this young woman – the opening prologue chapter alone is enough to break your heart). There are passages where Bitterblue says and does certain things to keep people close to her – physically and emotionally – for as long as possible. For example, in one passage, Bitterblue tells a white lie about hitting her head so that Katsa will continue to hold her and stroke her hair – it’s really heart-rendering stuff, these little memorable moments that show just how alone Bitterblue truly is.
These praises sung, there are many…strange, and slightly unsatisfying things about Bitterblue. First, there is the incredible protractedness of the story. As mentioned before, this is an introspective book that is more about personal growth and truth than it is about action or quests and adventure (compared to Katsa and Fire’s stories). There is no need for the book to be nearly as long as it is – there is much back and forth about pointless minutia, with Bitterblue getting frustrated with receiving no answers to her questions, then turning back to paperwork and other mendacity that does nothing to really move the story along. The overall mystery is a small, quiet thing too, that is built nicely over the course of the book but again, need not have been as protracted as it was. As it stands, I can see how many might put down Bitterblue because nothing really happens for so much of the novel. Similarly, while I enjoyed the characters of Teddy and Saf, the romantic angle felt tangential and underdeveloped (not that it truly matters to the meat of the story – but I’d almost prefer that it not have been included at all). The side characters and new introductions are likable enough, but the characterizations felt somehow bereft of the same intensity and depth that we see with Katsa and Po and Giddon and Thiel, and any number of other, older faces.
There are glimpses of brilliance within Bitterblue’s tale – I love the centrality of ciphers, the tragedy of books gone forever, burned and destroyed by Leck and his following. I love the different graces we are introduced to in this book (particularly a librarian named Death and his shocking ability to remember every single thing he has ever read). I also loved the way everything ties together in the end, as Katsa and Po’s story, and even that of Fire, comes to a head and is resolved in bittersweet fashion. I love the morose beauty of this book that deals with the legacy of pain and grief that follows a truly terrifying tyrant, and while there were some undeniable stumbling points in the meandering body of the story, the ultimate message and experience is a positive one. Bitterblue might not have the brashness of Katsa’s Graceling or the dangerous beauty of Fire, but it has an abundance of heart, and that is more than enough to recommend it.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From the Prologue:
When he grabs Mama’s wrist and yanks her toward the wallhanging like that, it must hurt. Mama doesn’t cry out. She tries to hide her pain from him, but she looks back at me, and in her face, she shows me everything she feels. If Father knows she’s in pain and is showing me, Father will take Mama’s pain away and replace it with something else.
He will say to Mama, “Darling, nothing’s wrong. It doesn’t hurt, you’re not frightened,” and in Mama’s face I’ll see her doubt, the beginnings of her confusion. He’ll say, “Look at our beautiful child. Look at this beautiful room. How happy we are. Nothing is wrong. Come with me, darling.” Mama will stare back at him, puzzled, and then she’ll look at me, her beautiful child in this beautiful room, and her eyes will go smooth and empty, and she’ll smile at how happy we are. I’ll smile too, because my mind is no stronger than Mama’s. I’ll say, “Have fun! Come back soon!” Then Father will produce the keys that open the door behind the hanging and Mama will glide through. Thiel, tall, troubled, bewildered in the middle of the room, will bolt in after her, and Father will follow.
When the lock slides home behind them, I’ll stand there trying to remember what I was doing before all of this happened. Before Thiel, father’s foremost adviser, came into Mama’s rooms looking for Father. Before Thiel, holding his hands so tight at his sides that they shook, tried to tell Father something that made Father angry, so that Father stood up from the table, his papers scattering, his pen dropping, and said, “Thiel, you’re a fool who cannot make sensical decisions. Come with us now. I’ll show you what happens when you think for yourself.” And then crossed to the sofa and grabbed Mama’s wrist so fast that Mama gasped and dropped her embroidery, but did not cry out.
“Come back soon!” I say cheerily as the hidden door closes behind them.
I remain, staring into the sad eyes of the blue horse in the hanging. Snow gusts at the windows. I’m trying to remember what I was doing before everyone went away.
What just happened? Why can’t I remember what just happened?
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Additional Thoughts: For more about Bitterblue and the Graceling Realms, check out the official trailer, or you can read more on the Graceling Realm website, Kristin Cahsore’s website, or the official Graceling Realm Facebook fanpage.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: The Hunt by Andrea Fukuda
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