October 19, 2012

Review: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Published: 2012, Dial Books
Series: Graceling Realm, #3
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Source: Library book
Contains spoilers for Graceling and Fire
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Bitterblue also had a taste for difficult—impossible—slow—messy work. She would figure out how to be queen, slowly, messily. She could reshape what it meant to be queen, and reshaping what it meant to be queen would reshape the kingdom.

After reading and loving Graceling and Fire, I was excited to read Kristin Cashore's most recent Graceling Realm novel. And, surprisingly for me, I hadn't read many reviews and therefore I was able to read Bitterblue with few to none expectations.

It has been nearly ten years since Leck's thirty-five year reign of terror over Monsea has ended. After blanket pardons were issued to those involved in Leck's atrocities and King Ror has helped establish his young niece's ascendancy to the throne, things seem to be returning to a semblance of normalcy. Bitterblue spends most of her days surrounded by her advisers, completing paperwork and being involved in other mundane tasks. One night, however, Bitterblue feels compelled to leave her castle and spend a few hours in the city to get a better understanding of her kingdom. She finds special taverns where bards tell stories of people and events, including tales of Leck's rule. She learns that in her city close to eighty percent of the population is illiterate. She "befriends" two city thieves, who she finds are stealing the palace's gargoyles, among other things, as remuneration for the things that Leck stole from his people over the years. Bitterblue realizes just how naive and ill-prepared she is to be queen of Monsea. What starts as a few questions listed on a journal page quickly escalates into a complex web of (mis)information and questions surrounding Monsea's murky past. Bitterblue struggles to figure out the truth, knowing that she and Monsea will be unable to progress until the past is laid open and accepted.

In Graceling I really liked the characterization of Bitterblue as a perceptive young girl who has endured so much. In Bitterblue, our new protagonist has matured into a resolute young queen with a strong sense of morality. Bitterblue allows Cashore to examine even more aspects of life in the Seven Realms and surrounding lands. In Graceling, the focus is on Katsa, a Graceling, and her efforts to undermine corrupt power systems. In Fire, Fire struggles with her own mix of human and monster traits, and also with the limits of her abilities in relation to the needs of her country. In Bitterblue, Bitterblue's struggle is fundamentally more human. She's trying to learn how to be a good queen to a country that has undergone so much pain and terror. I just loved how Bitterblue's struggle is essentially one that is aided and hindered by her humanity in the midst of this world with fantastical powers and beings. There are similarities present in Bitterblue's struggle against her father's legacy as compared to Fire's, but the ultimate message is a very different one. Bitterblue never worries that she'll become her father and her struggles are more rooted in helping her people recover, her own sense of resolution very much tied to those she rules.

Although I hesitate to call this a sequel to Graceling (I consider this to be another companion novel), one aspect of Bitterblue that I really enjoyed is that the events and characters are not isolated from Cashore's previous works. Bitterblue herself is introduced as an important secondary character in Graceling, although here it is she whose journey and personal growth becomes privileged. I really liked being able to see different characters through Bitterblue's perspective. Leck is just as evil, and Ashen's character is brought to life a little bit through Bitterblue. I was so happy to have a new chance to read about so many great characters, from Katsa and Po to Raffin and Bann and Giddon and Skye. I ended up really liking Giddon's character and the relationship he develops with Bitterblue, which at first was a little surprising since I didn't like him quite as much in Graceling (this is an instance where the changing POV really helps me better contextualize the world and characters within it). Although I loved reading about Katsa and Po, I felt that their relationship was portrayed a little more differently than I would have expected — almost like their relationship became based on sexuality rather than an internal connection. Instead of Bitterblue always noticing them wrestling and having extended make-out sessions, it would have been nice for her to notice more subtle aspects of their relationship as well.

I mentioned this in my review of Fire and I'll mention it again here. Leck's character actually forms a running continuum between all three novels, which I thought was awesome. Instead of getting a really in-depth portrayal of the evil king Leck upfront, Cashore instead parcels out bits of information in each book, eventually giving us a much fuller characterization than would have been possible in one book. I really can't say that I felt sympathy to his character after any of the three books, but each new bit of characterization added to my fear and fascination of him.

Despite the many positive aspects of the book, there were a number of things that I wish had been addressed or better done. The plot deals with hidden conspiracies, yet at times the story dragged a bit. I think that Cashore added in so many smaller threads that at times it made reading the story a little unwieldy. And even the romance between Bitterblue and Saf suffered from too many storylines. (Not that I'm truly complaining about that. Of the major romances in Cashore's three books, this felt the most forced and least realistic to me). More than anything, I wished for some catalyst to explain why events happened when they did in the book. In my interpretation, Bitterblue randomly decided one day to go explore her city and then started asking questions. But she'd already been queen for almost ten years before the events of the book took place. Am I really to believe she allowed herself to be naively kept in her castle tower for ten years, knowing all that she did about Leck's capabilities, before acting on even the tiniest of her questions? And that characters like Katsa and Po and Ror would allow Bitterblue to act this way? I needed more of an explanation than that. The disjointed story threads and my overall sense that the events in Bitterblue just occurred, without any true catalyst, did make Bitterblue a more frustrating read for me.

While I hate making comparisons between books in a series, sometimes they are unavoidable. I agree with all the reviewers who think that Bitterblue is the weakest of the Graceling Realm books. It isn't as powerful, didn't affect me quite as much as the others. Is it then a terrible book? No. It still possesses strong writing, solid characterization, and brings up important questions. Ultimately I think that the story Bitterblue tells is one that needed to be told and I hope that at some point Cashore is willing to revisit this wonderful, magical fantasy world.
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. I'm so glad you were able to enjoy this one, Amanda! I think my biggest problem with Bitterblue was that so much of it was TOO reflective for me and I wanted it to focus more on the aspects it brought up in the end with the suicides of Bitterblue's advisors and what-not. I do agree that it was a story that needed to be told, but I wish it had focused on a few different aspects. Wonderful review though, dear! I hope Cashore revisits this world someday too! :)

    1. I do agree with what you're saying, Keertana. Although I did like the change over the course of the books with Graceling being so action-oriented to Fire a little less to Bitterblue being so much more psychological and internal. I do think it could have been a shorter book with a few less subplots, though, and that may have solved a lot of its issues. And yes! Let's hope Cashore gets back to YA fantasy after a brief YA contemporary foray. :)

  2. Great review Amanda! I'm glad you have enjoyed this series! =) I haven't read fantasy in a long time and have become so addicted to contemporary I'm not sure if I could ever go back =/

    1. Thank you, Amanda! Oh no - you can always go back to fantasy! You just need to find the right book or series to start with. But it may make more sense to start with a specific character, since most contemporaries are so character-driven. I have faith you can get back into fantasy though!

  3. I want other books that take place in other kingdoms besides Monsea and Middleuns! I have to agree about this book. Though I never thought it dragged, and I loved the mystery. Great review!

    1. Yes, please! haha although I'm not sure I care enough about the other kingdoms just yet. So clearly that means Cashore must write another book and make me care about another one of the kingdoms. Thanks, Cort!


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