Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
As a little kid in the late nineties, my main exposure to fantasy was through watching my brother play video games. Thusly, Warcraft II and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were enormous parts of my childhood. While the former is something I’m fond of revisiting in a fog of nostalgia, it’s the latter that utterly captured my imagination. There’s a lot of reasons for that, from being left-handed to a surprisingly diverse array of female characters for a mainstream video game from the nineties, but the biggest is Princess Zelda herself. Forced into hiding as a child after the murder of her father, she pins her hopes on a wild gambit. She spends seven years becoming a warrior before that gambit can pay off, watching her kingdom crumble around her. When that gambit miraculously works, she bends time to her will to try and give both the hero and herself the childhoods they were denied. And then, without ever knowing if that worked or not (if she killed him or not), she has to rebuild a kingdom from scratch.
It’s a lot to think about, so thank God for fanfiction. So powerful is Zelda’s story to me that I’ve developed a taste for characters like that—young female royals with pain in their eyes, the weight of the world on their shoulders, and, when push comes to shove, wills of iron. Bitterblue, then, couldn’t be aimed harder at me if Kristin Cashore had tried. Bitterblue, last seen in Graceling as the newly crowned child queen of Monsea, is now eighteen. Monsea has been trying to move on, through her councilors’ “forward thinking” iniatives, but the pain of thirty-five years of suffering under the mind control of her father, King Leck, can’t be swept away so easily. As Bitterblue begins to suspect that her advisors are lying to her, she begins sneaking out to learn the truth for herself.
Each book in the Graceling Realm series is the embodiment of its heroine—Graceling is all action, Fire is all politics, and Bitterblue is about coming to terms with the past. Thus, the plot of Bitterblue isn’t as tightly structured as Graceling or as easy to follow as Fire. If your antagonist is the mass mental rape of an entire country, you’re not really going to have a climactic boss battle at the end of your story to tie up all the loose ends neatly. Instead, we follow Bitterblue as she both seeks out the truth and tries to become a good queen. There is a romantic subplot, but that, too, ties into Bitterblue confronting her own privilege. (Which she does so humanly and realistically.) Her lover is not thrilled to learn that the girl he’s fallen in love with is the queen herself, and needs time to come to terms with that. While there’s some action and plenty of mysteries, Bitterblue is largely an internal novel about a quiet woman coming into her own as queen.
This might feel a little out-of-step for people who adored the first two novels, but I ate this up with a spoon. I haven’t lost track of time while reading for quite a while, but Bitterblue did it. It’s exactly the kind of thoughtful work that comes from simply thinking through your foundational text, a bit like the first season of The Legend of Korra. And Bitterblue herself is such a wonderful character. With Katsa under her belt as the classically independent heroine, Cashore’s other novels have explored very different protagonists. Bitterblue has a good and true heart, but she can get overwhelmed by the enormous and painful task of healing her country. She’s recovering from her father’s abuse, the neglect of her tutors, and the fogginess of her own memories, due to Leck’s power, as well as she can. Without a family of her own, she adores her friends. Every interaction she had with her beloved Katsa was marvelous, especially a moment where she recognizes that Katsa is one of the few people in the world she feels safe with.
As a sequel to Graceling, Bitterblue offers the opportunity to see characters from that novel in a new light. Katsa and Po are still in tempestuous love, Raffin and Bann are dealing with pressure for Raffin to marry a woman and produce heirs, and Lord Giddon, a minor character, has changed his ways and becomes a great comfort to Bitterblue. (I braced myself at first, expecting a love triangle, but, wonderfully, that never happened. It’s the magic of friendship!) I was actually pretty happy to see some explicit queer representation here, improving on the implication of Raffin and Bann’s relationship in Graceling. Not only do we see two queer couples, but Bitterblue’s love interest is bisexual. The arrival of some familiar characters adds some racial diversity as well, but that’s a lovely reveal I don’t want to spoil.
Bitterblue does wrap up almost all of the stories begun in Graceling and Fire, but I hope Cashore continues to write fantasy novels as varied as their well-rounded protagonists. She’s an absolute boon to the genre.
Bottom line: There’s action and intrigue in Bitterblue, but it’s truly about Bitterblue coming into her own as queen to tend to a country recovering from thirty-five years of horror. I ate it up with a spoon.
I rented this book from the public library.