(Cover picture courtesy of the Graceling Wiki.)
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.
Each book in the Graceling Realm series is a little different. The first book, Graceling, is first and foremost about a Graceling’s (Katsa) struggle to remain free in a world where Gracelings are the property of kings. The second book is about Fire, a part-monster who has to struggle with the gift of her beauty and mind control that makes others suspicious of her and her motives. And finally, this third book is first and foremost about Bitterblue, a queen who really is trying to rule and heal a broken realm to the best of her ability.
I love how Kristin Cashore never paints her characters as perfect, even in the end. Bitterblue is first and foremost a flawed character and she grows because of it. She has no clue about Monsea aside from what her advisers tell her and even when she tries to gain independence they block her at every turn. She has a hard time relating to the average person even though she thinks she’s getting better when she starts sneaking out. It’s only when she truly looks inside herself and at her kingdom that she becomes the queen Katsa and Po meant for her to be.
Bitterblue is pretty much my favourite character in the whole novel, but the secondary characters are well fleshed out. Sapphire is fascinating, Fox is full of surprises and we even see how Katsa and Po have changed eight years into their relationship. There aren’t really any stock characters and that’s one of the main reasons why I love Kristin Cashore’s writing. She may take forever to write her books, but she does an amazing job with them.
I can’t in all honesty call the plot fast-paced yet it kept me up later than I intended. There are a lot of twists and turns as plots are uncovered and Bitterblue is forced to act and react to them. Everything we thought we knew about Monsea is turned on its head and there are stirrings of revolution in the other kingdoms.
Speaking of politics, that’s another one of Kristin Cashore’s strengths. In her fantasy world things don’t stagnate, they change as they do in this one. New technologies and ideas are developed, just like they really were in the Middle Ages. Tyrannical kings are toppled, new realms are discovered as exploration technology improves and medicine gets better. There are actual consequences for the actions of nobles and kings! It’s just a fascinating concept for fantasy and I’m so happy that Kristin Cashore takes her time to consider the geopolitical consequences of everyone’s actions.
If you loved the first two books in the series, you’re pretty much guaranteed to love Bitterblue. It’s that simple.
I give this book 5/5 stars.