Why I Read It: I loved Graceling. I liked Fire. Bitterblue has been in the publishing queue for what seems like ages, so once it had a hard release date, I pre-ordered that sucker ASAP. And once I was finished with all of my Hugo reading, I finally had the time to sit down and read this for myself.
The premise: ganked from Amazon: Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck’s reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle–disguised and alone–to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past.
Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. I spoil the bejeezus out of this book, and yet, there’s really nothing to spoil? That fact and the rating should warn you: this will be a long review. If you’re in a hurry and/or want to avoid spoilers, just skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be good to go. Everyone else? Onward!
Discussion: When I finished reading the book, I read the acknowledgements. The first person Cashore thanks is her editor for helping her get Draft One into a workable Draft Two. If this is the result of Draft Two, she really needed another draft (or two) before this book was ready. Because this book is an absolute and total mess. Worse, it’s an unnecessary mess.
Cruel words, and I don’t mean them to be. Like I said earlier, I absolutely loved Graceling when I read it in 2008. According to my review, I found Bitterblue’s character odd and unusual and not quite believable as a ten-year-old. I didn’t mind because Bitterblue was a supporting character, and given that she witnessed her own father murder her mother, I could roll with it.
But when I learned that Bitterblue was getting her own novel, I can’t say I was looking forward to it. Sure, I was obviously going to read it out of loyalty to the series, but in terms of getting a story from Bitterblue’s perspective, I wasn’t sure what she’d really have to offer. And unfortunately, the answer is nothing.
Look, it’s not that she’s a bad character. A lot of reviewers don’t care for this grown-up version, but I found her to be unoffensive. But the trouble is that this girl is completely at odds with the character we met in Graceling. The intervening eight years have worn her down into something rather dull, a girl who’s trying too hard to figure out herself and her role as a Queen. This could’ve been a great story… if there weren’t eight years from the time she took the throne. Instead, it takes eight years for her to decide she’s bored, for her to decide to sneak out on her own and learn more about her kingdom. Eight years. That’s a long time, considering the intervening years are all the time when kids are carving out their own identities.
And the sad thing is this: the whole story was totally unnecessary. I knew we were in trouble when we learn that her uncle, the king of Lienid, decided it would be a good idea to keep all of Leck’s former advisors in their current roles to help the kingdom move forward. How. Freaking. Stupid. I don’t care that Leck brainwashed half the kingdom. I don’t care that there’s no way of knowing if his advisors acted out of their own will or Leck’s. That’s all the more reason to not trust them, to retire them from positions of power and find people who were never under Leck’s influence to begin with. That’s how rebuilding starts.
So it’s no wonder that her council was the source of all the problems. But dear God, it took eight years and nearly six hundred pages to figure all of this out? This isn’t a book, this is an uninteresting history, and not only could it have been referred to in a book featuring Katsa (who has a more active role in reforming all the kingdoms), but how funny would it have been to learn, via Katsa’s POV, that Bitterblue, at age eleven, revealed a conspiracy to hide Leck’s past, fired all of her advisors, and created all these new Ministries to help her kingdom move forward? That would’ve rocked, IF she’d done this off-stage, and if she’d done it at a ridiculously young age. That would’ve been in keeping with her character.
Because I don’t believe the girl we met before would be afraid to explore her own castle for eight years (despite her father’s influence). I don’t believe she would’ve been content to be bossed around by her betters, especially after escaping the clutches of a man who manipulated minds. She used to be precocious and curious. Why did that lie dormant for eight years and only surface now?
I know why: because Cashore wanted to write a book about Bitterblue, and she also wanted Bitterblue old enough to have some kind of romance that would involve sex.
It’s worse, too, that the writing is an imitative fallacy of the book. Characters are confused and don’t know what’s going on, therefore the reader is confused and doesn’t know what’s going on. This doesn’t make the reader want to turn the pages: if the heroine’s bored, if the heroine’s miserable by all the muddled tedium of her court, and if the book is ABOUT the muddled tedium of her court, then the reader is going to be just as bored. I don’t know why anyone thought this book would be a good idea, except for the fact that is was too far along in the pipeline to cancel, and it might as well have been written so that they could move along to whatever’s next.
Don’t tell me that I just need action-adventure to hold my attention. I’ve read plenty of political fantasies that held my attention just fine. This book is just a bad example of it. It lacks nuance, and frankly, does a YA fantasy novel really need to be a political fantasy? Some is okay, but to be the primary function of the plot?
Don’t tell me that I needed a better romance to hold my attention. I actually liked the romance in this book, because I feel that Saf was essentially a high-school fling, but that she was building something stronger and deeper with Giddon, who will eventually be her husband. No, there’s not a love triangle in this book. I’m just reading between the lines. Bitterblue didn’t see Saf as her one true love, and neither did I.
I also resented the fact that Katsa and Po’s characters were utterly changed from Graceling. When together, they’re like fucking puppies, wrestling all the time and acting younger than the ages they were eight years ago in Graceling. I also didn’t like the fact that big events were happening between them and to them, but we’re getting those events through the eyes of Bitterblue or second-hand through info-dumps. I really felt, given all the politics in the Seven Worlds and given the developments in Katsa’s and Po’s relationship, that we needed another book featuring Katsa and Po before this one.
I also hated the feeling that Leck was still alive and an active villain. While I’m thrilled that wasn’t the case (frankly, I was tired of Leck after Graceling and didn’t care to see his younger self in Fire), the story does suffer from a lack of solid antagonist. Using the ghosts and memories of a man so terrible no one can recover from it has its uses, but I dislike that as a motivating factor, because it removes responsibility of peoples’ actions, and while Leck’s mind-control was certainly frightening, it lost its effectiveness the more I read about it (hence why I was glad he wasn’t an active villain in this book after being the active villain in the previous two).
One of the criticisms I’ve seen of this book was Cashore’s political correctness through out the text. With every book, Cashore has injected a “modern” value. In Graceling, Katsa didn’t want to get married. That was cool to me, though now I can’t remember what the big deal was, and frankly, after eight years with the same man, why is marriage an issue? But this book isn’t about Katsa, so let’s move on. In Fire, we had a heroine who didn’t want to have children. She had her reasons, and those reasons I still remember (I also just read the book last year), so that makes sense.
In Graceling, we have secondary gay characters, which didn’t bother me, though I wished it related to Bitterblue in a more personal way. For example, on page 151, there’s this exchange:
“Did you knock your head?” Katsa asked, smoothing Bitterblue’s hair back.
“Yes,” Bitterblue lied, to keep Katsa touching her.
It would have been really cool to have Bitterblue be a lesbian, but unless she’s bi, which she could very well be, the book indicates she’s into men (hello, Saf). Still, that passage made me wonder what might have been, especially since Cashore is trying so hard to inject real-world culture and diversity into her world. We learn that the people from Dell, including Fire, are actually dark skinned, something I totally missed while reading Fire. I remember seeing an interview where Cashore said she always envisioned the Dellians as dark skinned, and that’s cool. But where she did a bad job in one book, it almost felt like over-compensating in this. I couldn’t help but wonder: if Fire was really supposed to be black, why didn’t Cashore make a big stink about whitewashing on her covers? It almost feels like she realized all her characters were white and with Bitterblue, she’s trying to go back and fix it. I could be wrong, and frankly, it doesn’t bother me that the Dellians are of a different race. Hell, it makes perfect sense that they are. But Cashore’s writing in this book is so sloppy that I have a hard time trusting her decisions as a writer, and that’s not a comfortable feeling to have.
She clearly was trying to go back and make Po more realistically disabled. She mentions in her acknowledgements that after writing Graceling, she was taken to task for allowing Po’s Grace to overcome his disability, essentially making him whole and implying that one with disability isn’t whole. And this, in general, is a huge problem (just look at the outcry over giving Barbara Gordon her legs back for the New 52 Batgirl). In Bitterblue, Po’s got some strange crisis of conscious about revealing his Grace, and therefore revealing his blindness. It’s a strange subplot, one that goes back more to the fact that his character isn’t the character I remember from Graceling, and while I appreciate what Cashore was trying to do, it’s another case where I felt like she missed the mark.
But let’s be clear: I could re-read these three books back to back to back and realize that Cashore’s not overcompensating at all. Or I could totally flabbergasted by contradicting descriptions of skin tone and 180 degree character reversals. I don’t know. Someone who’s got a better and more recent memory of the previous two books would be better off to tell me what’s really going on here. What I think is happening is Cashore is learning as she goes, but as a result, her work is getting sloppier the more she’s trying to fix the mistakes she made previously. If that’s the case, that’s a shame. If that’s not the case, her work is still sloppy, and there’s a less valid reason for it to be so.
What do I mean by sloppy? Am I just being a mean reviewer? No. There were genuinely times Cashore’s transitions from one paragraph to another made no sense. Or they made sense but were really, really sloppy. Here’s one area that tripped me up (rightly or not) on page 154 & 155:
At midnight, Bitterblue slipped down stairways and through dim-lit corridors to Katsa’s rooms. As Bitterblue approached Katsa’s door, it opened and Po emerged. These were not Katsa’s usual rooms. Normally, Katsa took rooms abutting Po’s, near to Bitterblue and all of her personal guests, but Po, for some reason, had arranged for Katsa to occupy south castle rooms this time and sent Bitterblue directions.
“Cousin,” Po said. “Do you know about the secret staircase behind Katsa’s bathing room?”
Moments later, Bitterblue watched in astonishment as Po and Katsa climbed into Katsa’s bath.
Then there’s this exchange between Saf and Bitterblue (before he knows the truth) on page 236:
Now he was smiling too much to kiss properly. “I’ll be the thief,” he said, “and you can be the liar.”
“You’re my liar,” he whispered. “Will you tell me a lie, Sparks? Tell me your name.”
“My name,” she whispered, began to speak, then caught herself. Froze and stopped kissing him. She’d very nearly said her name aloud. “Saf,” she said, jangling with the pain of abruptly, jaggedly becoming conscious. “Wait,” she said, gasping. “Wait. Let me think.”
She struggled against his hold; he tried to stop her, then he too came awake and understood. “Sparks?” he said again, releasing her, blinking, confused. “What is it?”
She stared at him, sober now to what she was doing in this graveyard with a boy who liked her and had no idea who she was.
I don’t know about you, but this passage makes me feel like I’m missing something, as if they were both under an external spell (other than lust) that neither was aware of until this passage. It’s just . . . weird. Then again, maybe it’s me.
Then here’s a passage on 354 when Bitterblue is talking Saf after he’s learned her true identity. It seems to contradict itself, but maybe it’s me:
“I wouldn’t give it back,” she said, “what we did. I’d give it back for my mother to be alive. I’d give it back to know my kingdom better and be a better queen. Maybe I’d even give it back to have caused you less pain.”
So she wouldn’t trade what they had for the world, unless the price is right? Is that what she’s saying?
There are some good things in this book. The various Graces we learn about are a lot of fun. And Death (pronounced Deeth) was a helluva fun character. I loved it when he said on page 424:
“Lady Queen,” he said, “you’ve given me all I want. You’re the queen a librarian dreams of.”
I also loved Bitterblue’s friendship with Giddon, and how it seems to be building into something more. That was very nicely done.
I enjoyed the cameo of Fire, seeing that character aged and from the point of view of another. I loved learning that Fire and Brigan have been together for nearly fifty years. I loved seeing her use her power to show Bitterblue the Queen she is rather that everything she feels she isn’t. That, also, was nicely done.
My Rating: 2 – Below Standard
This book is below the proper standard for an engaging, political fantasy, YA or not. Worse, though, is this book is below the standards Cashore set for herself in Graceling and Fire. It’s sloppily written, indulgently long, and tells a short that could have been summed up in two paragraphs in a book featuring Katsa instead. I’m not sure that Cashore really knew what story she wanted to write, only that she wanted to write a story featuring Bitterblue, and this is what we got. The book also lacks a particular closure, leading me to believe this isn’t going to be a trilogy, but rather a longer series. It’s a series I’m not entirely sure I can continue without some trusted reviews telling me it’s okay. I’ve seen some criticisms that this reads like a fanfic of Cashore’s work, only the trouble is, Cashore wrote this, so it’d therefore be a fanfic of her own work, or something. I wouldn’t go that far in my criticisms, but I see the point: the characters are utterly different in a profound way from the characters we met in Graceling.
The book was, at least, a relatively fast read, and better, the last fourth of the book really moved along, because the puzzle pieces were finally coming together and allowed the reader to find out what was happening and why (too bad the truth really isn’t that interesting). There’s also lovely cameo at the end of Bitterblue which has some readers divided, but I rather enjoyed it. Another thing that works in this are the little various details that come into the different Graces. Saf’s Grace, when discovered, was really nice, and there’s a kitchen helper named Jass who I want to live in my house, her Grace is so awesome.
So ultimately, disappointing. It makes me worry about re-reading the first two books, out of fear of discovering they weren’t as solid as I thought, that I’ll see all the same flaws there that I finally picked up on here. I don’t think that will be the case, but when an author turns in this kind of book that’s so radically different from her previous installments, one can’t help but worry. Again, I’m not sure if I’ll continue the series should the series continue itself, because this book was that sloppy. Time, and future reviews, will tell.
Cover Commentary: I like that it’s keeping with the same conceptual design as the previous two books. Yet this is the first that doesn’t actually feature a weapon, which goes a long way in telling the reader what kind of book they’re really getting, compared to the first two. At any rate, it is a unique type of cover for this genre, but it’s not my favorite in the series. At least it’s blue! If it hadn’t been, that would’ve been an epic fail for the cover artist.