Eight years. Eighteen-year-old Bitterblue has been queen of Monsea for eight years since the death of her father, King Leck. A psychopath graced with the ability to make people believe whatever he wants, Leck left Monsea in a fog of devastation that still hasn’t been lifted. Suspecting her well-meaning advisors are shielding her from the truth with blanket pardons for the crimes committed during Leck’s reign, fixed reports and city statistics, and by refusing to speak about the past, Bitterblue is forced to go into the city disguised as a commoner to discover the truths of her kingdom. During her nightly visits Bitterblue meets Teddy, a printer, and Saf, a talented thief and Graceling who doesn’t know what his grace is, and they all become quick friends. But instead of uncovering the truth behind the odd behavior of her advisors and the illiteracy of her citizens, the questions mount. As Teddy, Saf, and the truthseekers seek to restore what has been lost, Bitterblue questions the extent of the unknown. What horrors are being hidden from her and why is finding the key to her past and moving on seem so impossible?
Closing Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue left me with a lot to think about, and not for the most obvious reasons. Whether reader expectations stem from past experiences with previous books by the same author or early reviews and reader reactions, reading Bitterblue made me realize how much these expectations can affect our own reading experience. This is exactly what happened to me with Fire, the second book in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm series. My expectations were sky-high for that book, and in retrospect, too narrow. It’s no wonder I was disappointed. Nonetheless, I hoped that my experience with Bitterblue would be different. Though I still had reservations, early negative reviews discouraged me even further from reading it. Once my feelings settled though and I was able to go into the book on my own terms, I finally picked it up and I couldn’t be happier that I did.
To my own chagrin, there wasn’t a page of Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue that I had any complaints about; on the contrary, I loved every minute of it. As its 576 pages warrant, Bitterblue is ambitious and epic – a worthy glimpse into what is only the beginning of a new chapter for Monsea. It is also longer and less plot or romance-driven than Cashore’s previous novels. Knowing this beforehand allowed me to adjust my expectations and may have lead to my positive reaction overall. Bitterblue summarizes it best in this passage:
In the bakery, leaning over the bread dough, pushing and shaping it into an elastic thing, she began to find clarity on one point: Like Death, Bitterblue 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.
I also agree in part by what has already been said: Some of the less significant plotlines (i.e. the crown) could’ve been abbreviated without losing their purpose within the story. Bitterblue may not be a page-turner in the traditional sense, which doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to read one more chapter after I finished the last, because from start to finish I certainly did. But the horrific subject matter and resulting emotional impact was overwhelmingly heavy and halted me at times. What also slowed my pace was the beauty of Cashore’s nuanced, luminous prose, especially in the last 150 pages, throughout which I wanted to appreciate each small, climatically revealed puzzle piece as it fell into place. The myriad of messages, specifically knowing atrocities versus healing from them and when to offer harsh truth instead of kind deceit, are profound. Though the answers to the unknowns are disturbing at times and the least hoped for, the unvarnished truth at last revealed is what matters most and drives the plot. Perhaps the most heartbreaking and moving revelation is how one character embodies the collective destruction of Leck’s victimization as a whole. Thankfully, there is also lightness in the humorous exchanges and comraderie between Bitterblue and the Council. I would be remiss not to mention the incredibly sweet, satisfying moments of Bitterblue’s romance, which takes an appropriate backseat to the main mystery plot. The companion novel Fire may be more tightly plotted and Graceling more action-packed, but its sequel Bitterblue links the two novels in an enlightening way and is probably my favorite of the three, not only for the blood, tears, sweat and care that are evident in every page but for the new characters (Saf, Teddy, and Death “Deeth”, the graced librarian who remembers everything he reads), old characters (Prince Po and Giddon) and strong, unwavering Bitterblue herself. I admired her courage and identified with her inner doubts. I loved watching her mature from her mistakes and setbacks as a queen and a woman. By the end you’ll find that flawed, ordinary Bitterblue the character and introspective, character-driven Bitterblue the novel are not so average after all. Exquisite, even. Undoubtedly and sans trepidation I will be reading whatever Kristin Cashore writes next.
Note: Be sure not to miss the informative and witty character glossary, the detailed acknowledgements and the whimsical maps and drawings illustrated by Ian Schoenherr that appear after the novel. The entire design of the hardback – from the intricate cover pages to the chapter/part divider illustrations and the appendices – is exceptional and a must-own for any fan of the novel.