Note: This review necessarily contains spoilers for Graceling, but not for Bitterblue.
It is eight years after the events in Graceling, and Bitterblue is now age 18 and Queen of Monsea. Both of her parents are dead. A political novice, she still uses the advisors of her hated father, the former king, and struggles to understand what is going on in her kingdom. But it is difficult; she is overwhelmed by paperwork, and is only escorted out of the castle once a year.
Deciding to take matters into her own hands, Bitterblue begins sneaking out at night, disguised as a commoner. She meets a couple of thieves, Saf and Teddy, who seem nice in spite of their avocation, and they help serve as her guides to the “real world” of life in Monsea.
Meanwhile, her royal relatives from around the Seven Kingdoms arrive to use Bitterblue’s castle for meetings of The Council, the undercover association dedicated to remove the world’s worst kings from power. Katsa and Po, Giddon, Prince Raffin and Bann all agree to help Bitterblue as well, so she can be the kind of queen she wants to be.
Buttressed by these two groups of friends – Saf and Teddy, and Bitterblue’s royal relatives, Bitterblue begins to discover things about her kingdom she never knew, including the true nature of her father’s crimes. She also finds out the extent of her own strengths, and what she can hope for as she faces the future.
Discussion: Cashore makes strong and admirable female characters and yet they are not immune to love. But love doesn’t take precedence over other aspects of the characters’ lives. She also makes a point of including gay characters who she shows in a supportive light having loving relationships. And all the characters are nuanced in interesting and touching ways – even Leck, Bitterblue’s psychopathic father.
Another thing I admire about Cashore is that she manages to construct a complicated universe that is no struggle at all to assimilate. When reading books with such extensively developed fantasy worlds I am often apt to struggle and my mind wanders, but I never had that problem with this book.
Finally, as straightforward as the prose is, the author still manages to delight with the images she creates. At one point, Saf and Bitterblue are sitting outside at night, on a rooftop:
He looked up from the pages into her face. His eyes were black and full of stars.”
And this, when Bitterblue is thinking about Saf:
How loyal and gentle Saf had been with her, and without her asking it of him. As quick to love as he was to anger, as quick to warmth as to foolishness, and he had a tenderness she wouldn’t have expected from him. She wondered if you could love someone you didn’t understand.”
Evaluation: This is a wonderful story. You do not have to have read the preceding book in the series, Graceling, in order to read this one, but Graceling is very good as well (see my review, here) and will ease your acclimation into the world of Bitterblue. This one, however, is even better, in my opinion. I was quite sad when it was over, both at the bittersweet ending, and at the possibility that it would be the last in the series. (As of this date, Cashore has not yet decided if she will write a continuation.)
Published by Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., 2012