Bitterblue is the third book in Kristin Cashore’s series that began with Graceling and continued with Fire, both excellent novels (I gave them 5 stars and 4.5 stars respectively). Bitterblue is not quite as good, but the drop-off is slight, resulting in another strong read and a more than satisfying continuation.
Bitterblue picks up some years after Graceling. The murderous, tyrannical King Leck has been dead for years and now Bitterblue, as Queen of Monsea, is trying to put her kingdom back together. Her first step toward becoming a true queen, however, is when she leaves her castle refuge and steps out into the streets of her city to engage with real people. Soon, she’s finding things aren’t quite what she thought they were. Her attempts to find the truth and to fix what is broken take place in a world suddenly grim with conspiracy, madness, confusion, mistrust, and murder.
I gave Cashore a lot of credit in my review of Fire for not rushing out with an immediate sequel to the hit Graceling. Instead, she revisited the same world via a book set in a different time, a different land, and focused on different characters. She deserves a lot of similar credit for the core premise of Bitterblue. Though a more conventional sequel in that it returns us to familiar lands, times, and characters, she still takes some risks here. One is that while main characters from Graceling appear in Bitterblue (Katsa, Po, a few others), these appearances are really quite minor. Also, rather than picking up immediately afterward, we’ve jumped forward a good chunk of years.
But by far my favorite aspect of Bitterblue’s premise is that rather than give us an entirely new adventure, the adventure here is dealing with the consequences of the evil that’s been vanquished. The defeat of evil is a long process, and killing the bad guy is just the first — albeit necessary — step. It isn’t all “ding dong the dark lord’s dead” and let’s go back to a happy home (think “scouring of the Shire”). Bitterblue doesn’t get to jump on a horse and head off on another quest, she doesn’t get to be distracted by the rise of another dark lord, or the prior dark lord’s ticked-off minion, or the sudden arrival of some malevolent magical talisman. She has to deal with the tragic reality that evil doesn’t disappear with the evildoer. It ripples out through time and society and continues to warp and distort people’s lives long after the villain has been killed or deposed. And cleaning it up is a messy, ugly, and yes, “bitter” business. It’s a concept too few fantasy authors explore, so props to Cashore for doing so and doing it so well.
The “evil,” by the way, is pretty dark and grim, and Cashore does not shy away from describing it, especially toward the end. There are some seriously disturbing images and concepts in this book and for that reason, I don’t advise it for the lower end of YA readers.
The process of trying to recover from Leck’s evil is even more confusing because Leck’s power was mind-control and because he was such a control freak — leaving no records behind, burning or rewriting histories, disappearing hundreds (if not more) people. How does one determine “truth” in a world where people cannot even trust their memories? If they even have memories. How does one apportion “blame” or “guilt” in a world where people could be made to do something against their will? How does one make “reparations” for a lost son or daughter, spouse or parent? For a generation of forced ignorance? These are tough, complicated questions and they don’t leave one confident that there are going to be a lot of clear-cut answers to them.
The questions are complicated further by events outside Bitterblue’s kingdom, where tyrannical kings are being deposed, or threatened with being deposed, by groups of nobles or even, gasp, the people themselves (both with some help from Bitterblue’s disruptive friends — Katsa, Po, and the rest of the “Council”). Bitterblue wants to fix her kingdom, but should it even be “hers”? Should it even be a “kingdom”? More credit is due to Cashore for basing her book on such sophisticated, serious questions.
Many of these questions, it should be pointed out, have their real world analogs. It is not solely the realm of “fantasy” where leaders and governments have mass murdered and “disappeared” their own people, have rewritten their histories, have destroyed traditions and whole cultures. It is not solely in the realm of “fantasy” that countries have rid themselves of such leaders only to struggle with the legacy of what is left behind: how to deal with those involved, how to deal with guilt and punishment (“truth committees”), how to find out what happened to the disappeared.
Along with its underlying themes, another major strength of Bitterblue is, well, Bitterblue. This is, as is often the case in YA, a coming-of-age story. Bitterblue must come into her place as queen but also as a young woman. Cashore does an excellent job of being patient with this process, showing it in all its glacial movement forward, with all its one step forward, two steps back sense of “progress.” The romantic angle, a typical element of YA, is predictable but handled in unpredictable fashion to some extent, is handled in a more sophisticated manner than usual, and thankfully takes a back seat to the non-romantic aspects of Bitterblue’s growth.
The plot, as one might expect in a story about mind control, loss of memory, and conspiracy atop conspiracy is a bit convoluted, perhaps overly so at times, though I had no complaints in that regard. It doesn’t have a strong or sharply-edged sense of narrative motion, but I think that is quite purposeful and also quite appropriate. Things circle around, drop into dead ends; there’s a sense of illogic or randomness throughout. There is a mystery (several actually) at the heart of Bitterblue, but I don’t think one should expect to read it like a usual mystery, looking for cause and effect, looking to track one clue to the next to the logical conclusion. I’d love to say more about this, because I actually think it’s a subtle strength of the novel, but to do so I fear might give too much away.
Despite the sense that a sort of fog hangs over the plot, it moves along smoothly and quickly. I finished the book, roughly 550 pages in my ARC version, in two quite enthralled sittings, never feeling it lagged. Sure, if I pored over it I could have probably edited it down, but it didn’t feel like it needed it, as so many books do. It was a 500+ page book that read like a 300+ page book. (My wife, who grabbed my copy before I even did, thanks to my being in the middle of another book, found it equally captivating and read in a handful of sittings, staying up well past her bedtime to keep reading.)
The few complaints I have are relatively minor compared to the book’s strengths. Many of the side characters, and even some semi-major ones, were a bit flat or overly familiar. A few of the plot points were familiar as well, such as the prince/princess disguising themselves to head out into the city scene, though this was a less frequent problem. Characters were a bit too obtuse at some points, especially with regard to one particular individual/plot point (some characters have an excuse for being obtuse; that’s not what I’m referring to here). The prose is pretty effortless and engaging throughout, but I can’t say I was ever wowed by the language (not that such a thing happens often, so as I said, a minor complaint). As with the other books, the world-building is thin. Cashore has some strong descriptive passages in the book — art, for instance, plays a pretty big role and she does a nice job conveying sculptures, wall hangings, and the like — but the actual world never felt fully present or concrete to me: the city, the people in the city, the kingdom, the larger world beyond the kingdom. Finally, the more direct connections to the prior books at time felt a bit tacked on or clumsily integrated, or maybe just a bit rushed.
I thoroughly enjoyed Bitterblue from the beginning, but the novel really finds its power in the final 100 pages. From here, the novel packs an emotional and philosophical wallop. I’d say the first 450 pages is well deserving of a four-star rating, but I’d give its final 100 five. It leaves you satisfied, moved, disturbed, and uncomfortable. That’s my kind of book.