Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

23 Aug

When he grabs Mama’s wrist and yanks her toward the wall-hanging like that, it must hurt.

Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away I was a naive library school student doing my practicum in New York Public Library’s amazeballs Teen Central. During a discussion of what to recommend to teen girls to get them reading about strong female leads rather than dippy, self-loathing Bella, the lovely librarians of Teen Central introduced me Kristin Cashore‘s Graceling Realm.

For the uninitiated, and because this is the third book in the sequence (though the second book, Fire, takes place before Graceling or Bitterblue), let me try to do a brief summation: gracelings are people born with preternatural abilities.  Leck, who features in all three novels and is one of the most terrifying literary figures I have ever encountered, ruled the kingdom of Monsea for decades without anyone knowing he was graced. You see, Leck had the ability to control minds, to make people believe everything he said to them. He manipulated their memories and their free will just to please his psychotic whims until Katsa, the heroine of Graceling (graced super power: survival and general badassery) threw a dagger through his open mouth and killed him (holler!), thereby rescuing his young daughter, Bitterblue, and liberating Monsea from a sadistic tyrant.

Bitterblue is the story of the eponymous young queen, now eighteen, who inherited her psychopathic father’s throne after Katsa assassinated him. Stifled by her four overprotective advisers (who are all suffering from varying degrees of PTSD, I should add) and wanting desperately to help her kingdom move forward from its collective trauma but feeling woefully out of touch with the reality of her city,  Bitterblue makes like a teenager, disguises herself as a commoner, and sneaks out at night. She spends evening after evening in her city’s storyhouses, listening to tales of her father’s tyranny and her friends’ heroism. She meets two young men, Teddy and Saf, a printer and a thief,  and as their friendship develops a conspiracy begins to unfold that threatens her life, her kingdom, and the healing it so desperately needs.

Bitterblue is quite a departure from the previous two Graceling Realm novels. As a good friend of mine put it, “more intrigue in the castle and less fighting and adventures.” It’s an incredibly complex, lengthy, and DARK novel that explores some pretty weighty themes, and for the most part does so successfully. In particular, I really loved the sub-plot/theme of Teddy and Saf’s dedication to “truth-seeking,” or helping people share their stories through giving them the tools to learn how to read and write. She was able to look at the ways in which story can be used to empower and to heal, but also to hurt by countering the supreme importance of giving people voices for their horribly abused memories with the trauma of being forced to dredge recollection to the surface for everyone else to see before the person is necessarily ready. There was a lot of disturbing material in this novel, but watching the beloved Thiel crumble and self-destruct as he was forced to share what exactly Leck had made him do when he robbed him of his free will was heartbreaking.

Bitterblue is both exasperating and sympathetic, an isolated character who is trying to do her best from a place of loneliness and trauma, but she is also a teenage girl who is coming into herself as a woman. Her struggles to understand her kingdom and herself through acts of rebellion and near-constant lying may read as frustrating to many adult readers, but rings true when considering she is an eighteen-year old girl with no experience of normal life. Her desperation to unearth the truth of what happened to a kingdom whose abuses are hidden under layer upon layer of mental rape mirrors her own need to heal, to find out what the nature of Leck’s rule means about her; after all, the monster who murdered, tortured, and destroyed the lives of so many people was her own father.

While I know there are some readers who have taken issue with just how LONG the book is, I actually enjoyed the pacing and the ways in which the different subplots circled around each other for hundreds upon hundreds of pages. I actually liked ALL of the subplots, which doesn’t generally happen with books of this length and complexity; I didn’t feel compelled to speed through one part to get on to the juicier bits that really interested me. While the romance between her and Saf was obvious right from start, be did help Bitterblue become aware of the extreme power disparity between them, and therefore, between her and everyone else she had ever known. That and, come on. He’s Lienid, i.e., a tattooed, bejeweled dreamboat. (Italics solely for the benefit of people who have read the book, and/or someone who wants to try to read into some really heavy-handed spoiler hintery on my part). However, I WILL say that even though he’s hella old for her, I really wanted her to make out with Giddon, too. Alas, Cashore stayed away from well-worn love triangle category, and stayed true to the “fierce, independent woman” jam that makes the Graceling Realm books so different from other YA fantasy/dystopia/any kind of book in which the girl picks the boy and then they live happily ever after.

One more point that I feel I should add: this book is GORGEOUS. Ian Schoenherr’s illustrations that demarcate the different parts of the book elevate it to a thing of beauty.

Oh, and another:

DEATH THE LIBRARIAN. BEST. CHARACTER. EVER.

Overall, this is a pretty damn good book. In tone and scope this feels less like the romantic fantasies of Graceling and Fire and more of the ilk of Melina Marchetta’s Lumatere chronicles. Those looking for the fast-pacing of Graceling will be disappointed. This is a long and meandering but rewarding book, with murders and betrayals and suicides and rapes and all sorts of horrible, horrible things. Despite all the dark there is beauty and healing and redemption; there is an elegant balance of horror and light, and this is, in my humble opinion, Kristin Cashore’s most accomplished work yet.

For musical accompaniment, I chose Cat Power’s “Maybe Not.” It’s all about freeing yourself by liberating your mind, but not necessarily in the same way as that awesome En Vogue song.

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