I finally got my hands on a copy of Bitterblue last weekend. I started reading at about 5pm on Friday and finished at about 3am on Saturday. Really, I don’t in general recommend reading books like that; it doesn’t give you time to process and reflect on what you’re reading. But sometimes I just can’t help it!
Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore picks up about 8 years after the events of Graceling (and about 45 years after Fire). Our protagonist Bitterblue, now 18, has inheirited a kingdom that is torn between wanting to right the wrongs committed during her horrible father King Leck’s 35-year reign, or simply trying to forget. At the moment, “governing” for Bitterblue means being shut up in her tower with lots of paperwork, so she begins sneaking out at night to see the true condition of her capitol city, and winds up meeting a very interesting pair of young thieves who only steal “what has already been stolen.” When one of them is nearly killed, Bitterblue uncovers a world of conspiracies, royal thefts, and dark secrets her father left behind.
For fans of Graceling and Fire, this book will be extremely satisfying. All (well, most) of those pesky questions left over from the two previous books will be answered. But just as Fire was different from Graceling, Bitterblue is distinct from both. Partly this is due to Cashore’s wonderful ability to depict the world as her protagonist sees it, so each girl feels and interprets things differently, leading to a different tone in each book. The scope of this book is also different; Bitterblue never leaves her city, lending a claustrophobia to the sense of conspiracy surrounding her. And this book is a little darker than either of the others. Leck’s atrocities have been touched on before, but here his sadistic madness is truly on display. Even though he’s been dead for years, he haunts every page of this book. This was another reason I read the book quickly: when I know a book is dark, I try not to dally, so that I’m not dwelling in that “pit of despair” for weeks.
The book is longer than first two, being around 560 pages (including some wonderful maps and illustrations.) It is also much more complex. I don’t normally enjoy politics and intrigue (see my struggles with Game of Thrones for reference), but this book turns those from confusing into a compelling mystery, always giving just enough hints in the right places to keep you turning pages. Bitterblue is a very cerebral adventure, with ciphers instead of archery. This might be a disappointment to some, but I am personally much more like Bitterblue than I am like Katsa or Fire, so it worked for me.
In short, I recommend all 3 books in this series highly. They showcase some of the best female protagonists in current fantasy. If you haven’t read them yet, I recommend starting with Graceling (although other readers who started with Fire will recommend that also). When I first read Fire, I think I was put off by how different it was from Graceling, but after a second reading it really grew on me. And Bitterblue completes the trilogy brilliantly.
If you’ve already read Bitterblue, read on for more analysis.
[SPOILERS start here]
Probably my favorite parts of the book were the little references to the previous books. I cheered out loud when Po first appeared. I think for the most part she gave her fans what we wanted. I was thrilled to find that Katsa and Po still aren’t married and Katsa still doesn’t want babies. I was even more thrilled to find that Fire and Brigan have been happily married for forty-eight years, with a highly successful daughter, and I inferred as well that Nash did marry Mila (a commoner, as stated). Cashore had given no indication that Fire would appear in this book, but I had already done the math to figure that it would be possible. It was a perfect way to resolve all the dramatic irony related to all things Dellian in Monsea. We, of course, knew that it was Fire in the tapestry, that all the stories of fuchsia raptors were true. Somehow, when Bitterblue described the tapestry with the brightly colored cat ripping out a man’s throat, my first thought was that she was looking at Cansrel.
An indeed, who better to understand Bitterblue’s turmoil over Leck than the daughter of Cansrel? Fire’s appearance gives the ending a breath of hope. Both of these ladies had “monsters” for fathers. Fire and her kingdom have come away stronger for it, and we can only hope that the same will hold true for Bitterblue and Monsea.
The book has several nice themes, the most important relating to truth and lies. The first line lays the foundation: “Queen Bitterblue never meant to tell so many people so many lies.” Indeed, many people lie in this book, for many reasons. But, is lying always wrong? Does one lie invalidate every other action you take? Is it possible to lie and tell the truth at the same time? Bitterblue must lie to Saf and Teddy about who she is, but it is only then that she is most able to be herself. Madlen the healer is one of the queen’s truest supporters, but she is essentially living a lie, too. Po is finding it harder to lie about his Grace since he has gone blind, and so he starts wanting to tell more people the truth—Katsa sees that this could put him in danger (and I don’t just mean the two black eyes).
I really like the way Cashore weaves in serious modern-day issues into her fantasy setting (nearly) effortlessly. Bitterblue tackles such issues as birth control, cutting, gay marriage, PTSD, and disability politics, some effectively than others; for me, it felt a little heavy handed this time around, particularly with homosexuality. I almost wished she hadn’t ruined the ambiguity of Raffin and Bann’s relationship. I liked the idea that maybe we the readers knew more about the characters than the characters themselves did.
The romance in Bitterblue not quite as satisfying as is the previous books, but it is also realistic. Saf is a normal person, not a prince or military hero, and he feels real, with both virtues and flaws, but at the same time I didn’t quite take to him. He’s just not the kind of guy I would be interested in (I liked Teddy better!) And while I was hoping for Bitterblue find some happiness with him, we all knew that there could be no future for them together. I think this is a very realistic and relatable take on love for eighteen-year-olds. Like with Fire and Archer, a relationship may be healthy at one point, but not so later on, and that’s ok.
The book does leave open the question of Bitterblue’s marriage, for, like Raffin, she must marry. I was definitely feeling some connection between Bitterblue and Giddon, what with the truth-telling experiment and her realization of how much she would miss him. Also note Giddon’s reaction when Saf is disrespectful to Bitterblue; it reminded me greatly of his defense of Katsa when he was in love with her in Graceling. I thought Giddon would be the perfect solution to Bitterblue’s marriage problem…except then he lost his lordship and his fortune. Unless Bitterblue gives him a title (an idea she rejects), he’s no longer an appropriate match for her either! While the lack of resolution is a little frustrating, and we’d all like to see Bitterblue happily married, I can also appreciate the implication that Bitterblue has much more important matters at hand; how refreshing that while as a queen she may need a husband eventually, as a woman she doesn’t!
One last thing that puzzled me: what has Bitterblue been doing for eight years? I assume Cashore wanted her to be eighteen so she could deal with more mature, complex issues in the storyline. But the intrigues of the book seem to happen suddenly, not as though they have been building up for years. I can’t believe that she has been pushing around papers in her tower for nearly nine years and then overnight decides to sneak out of the castle. A time gap of a year or three could easily be explained: visiting her Lienid relatives, getting her household in order, hosting her uncle for some months while he restructures her government. But eight years?? I don’t know.
There is so much more I could say about this book! But here I’ll stop…for now at least. I have to return my copy to the library tomorrow. But I’ll have my own copy soon enough. Although I may not reread it as much as Graceling or Fire, it will definitely have a place next to them on my shelf.