Review: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

by Kristin Cashore

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can I say but that I am amazed – amazed at how far Cashore has come from her first book; amazed how well she held my interest through the daily duties and constant, ever present worries of Bitterblue that she didn’t know enough to run her kingdom, to heal her people; amazed that for once the romance didn’t even register in my head as one of the main plot points. I was too involved in the political cloud the young queen found herself in – everything vague and nothing tangible. I was too engrossed in the emotional journey she was on, to discover what her father really did to injure a whole nation of people, to revisit a past everyone else seemed determined to forget, to become more than she was allowed to be – to become a queen.

Graceling had a story every writer immersed in the fantasy world could recognize as something they would have loved to write about – Cashore did an especially splendid job with a plot that could have turned trite in the hands of another author – something easily ignored. But Cashore instilled soul in her book – in Katsa, in Po. She gave them minds that thought, acted, reacted in a manner slightly different from those of traditional heroes. She made them individuals.

Her books always seem to be more about the characters than the situations they are in – about emotions and about growing up.
I noticed that all three of her heroines seem to have their adventures at eighteen. She seemed to get hold of them at the cusp of womanhood and narrate to us a journey that would shape the rest of their lives.

In Fire, there was something haunting about a girl, alone in a visceral way, trying to prove to the world that she was something other than her father’s daughter – that her monster blood didn’t rule her. It was poignant but there, just as in Graceling, was a romance I loved. In Fire, the whole of the Dells was a wonderful, colourful vista – a battleground where humans and monsters warred in their minds everyday while a larger threat loomed in the North and politics and intrigue filled the pages. Some said, Fire didn’t live up to Graceling – but I could only see the growth – the spreading of an author’s wings. She was bringing in new concepts and she was creating whorls of complex plots which brought in questions of moral and ethical integrity in the face of decisions that could effect a whole kingdom- and I loved it.

Again the driving force in her books were Fire and the people who entered her life and decided to stay. I found that I loved that too.

In Bitterblue, she surpassed her previous efforts. It was as if she decided she didn’t need to pull her punches any more. This isn’t a romance, not really if you consider romances as things that always have a happy ending. I have no idea if Cashore intends to write another book to give us that happy ending, but I doubt it. Bitterblue will grow and become the queen her mother had known she could be, but it was this year of her life, these few months that we truly needed to be an audience to. Her father’s legacy was insidious. Even eight years after his death, Leck hadn’t vanished from Monsea and neither had his tyranny. It lived more quietly now, whispering down dark streets and strangling voices that want to protest. An adult Bitterblue was not as easily distracted by piles of paperwork and easy excuses as the child had been. When she began questioning, and distrusting the answers given to her, the young queen decided that some things had to be found out on your own. On the streets, in story rooms in dark alleys, hiding under a servant’s cloak, Bitterblue hears tales of her father’s reign and the story of how he was killed, again and again. She wonders why these men and women seem to find peace in these tales, when her advisers had explained to her that the kingdom didn’t want to remember – that they wanted to move on – that the only way to start healing was to throw a shroud over the past and never look back.
Bitterblue found that she wanted to look back, wanted to find out exactly what had happened that put a dreadful spell of half-waking on her kingdom and why her people still suffered. But there were people who didn’t want her to find out, who didn’t want reminding and Bitterblue had to find these people too, for they were killing to buy silence.
I liked the boys, Teddy and Saf. Neither was much of a thief – they were doing what they could to right wrongs long forgotten. Up till 50% of the book I expected the kind of romantic involvement between Bitterblue and Saf that I had seen previously in Graceling and Fire. In the previous books, somehow love had prevailed. But I had forgotten that even in those books the characters had to make sacrifices to stay together, but never had the price been a sacrifice of who they truly were. In Bitterblue, that is what we asked of her and Saf, if we wanted them to stay together.
But I couldn’t find myself too disappointed. They were not what the book was about. It was about Bitterblue emerging to take the reigns of her kingdom, it was about the first years of a queen who would one day become legendary. She is young and someday, either the time will be right for her and Saf or there will be someone else.
In the meanwhile, there was a whole new administration to create and run, conspiracies to disentangle and learning to trust men and women who had been both victims and abusers during and after Leck’s reign.

Cashore brought Kastsa, Fire and Bitterblue together towards the end, which makes me believe that this is it. The last book. I know I’ll whine about that later, but right now I’m still too satisfied.

The illustrations – great Gods! – the wonderful, perfect illustrations! My imagination could not have done a better job, no way.

I’m grateful that Cashore gave us a bit of Katsa and Po, especially Po in this book and that we could see how much their relationship had developed. I’m thrilled to see how much in love they still are. I’m also glad that Bitterblue is beginning to know how strong such a love can be.

And now that I’ve rambled on for some time, I’ll bring it to an end here.
I loved the book – yes, I wanted more romance, but I’ll take what she gave me because it only made Bitterblue more real to me, not just a book full of tropes to entertain. Oh how I wish there were more books in the Graceling world to come! Is that too much to hope for?


(An hour later) – I just found an excerpt from a recent interview during her current book tour:

Q: How have you re-imagined Po, and what will you do now that you have? (This question refers to the acknowledgments section in Bitterblue, where I guess Kristin mentioned something about envisioning Po differently than when she had in Graceling?)

A: Kristen answered saying that she was stuck with what she did. She didn’t have the opportunity to revisit him in Bitterblue, but she is planning a new book and hopes to do more with Po and write from his perspective. She also mentioned she had to admit the mistakes that she made in Graceling, which was difficult.

What this excerpt refers to is the fact that in Graceling Cashore blinded Po but then allowed his Grace to grow so big that it almost compensated for the lack of sight. She writes in her acknowledgement at the end of Bitterblue that she regrets this because she hadn’t considered the politics of disability – she hadn’t really thought about the fact that in a way she was insulting blind people, because her hero couldn’t stay completely blind as still be capable and heroic.

If you follow Cashore’s blog, you’ll know that this kind of thinking is just like her. It’s deep and she considers repercussions and I believe her when she says that she regrets how she ended things with Po in Graceling. In Bitterblue, she has given him new problems which don’t have much to do with his blindness. I hope she really means what she said about another book from Po’s perspective. That would truly complete the Graceling world for me.

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