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 heartReview: First Line (outside the Prologue): “Queen Bitterblue never meant to tell so many people so many lies.”Cover Story: I want to live in a place that requires keys like this. Classy.I like how the covers of Graceling, Fire, and now Bitterblue tie in together. They’re very matchy-matchy while retaining a unique look, with a vivid color scheme and a significant item from the story: the dagger; the bow and arrows; the keys. I don’t care one way or another about the whispy, transparent girl-parts (though I’m not sure why they chose to go with the lips on Fire’s cover) but it’s YA, so I suppose it’s required that we have a disembodied head or unfortunately close close-up.
Five-Sentence Summary: The last time we saw Bitterblue, she became Queen of Monsea at ten years old with the death of her father, the psychopathic King Leck, who had spent the past 35 years mind-raping everyone in the seven kingdoms with his Grace. Now 18, Bitterblue is still trying to repair her fragile, unsettled kingdom, despite the fog of uncertainty still clouding her own mind. Worse, she’s not sure she can trust the people she relies on to help run her kingdom, for they are all damaged irreparably from their time under Leck. Though her advisors want to pardon all crimes committed under Leck and never speak of the past, Bitterblue is determined to be a “puzzle solver, and a truthseeker”, for the only way to heal her kingdom is to first acknowledge its pain. But lies can be comforting, and truth can shatter, and as Bitterblue uncovers the past, she must confront those who will do anything to keep it hidden.
There are truly a LOT of characters in this book, an entire kingdom’s worth and more, and the familiar ones gain even more depth and intensity while the new ones have full, intriguing lives of their own. Rather than go into every one, some of which would be spoilers anyway, here’s some of my favorites:
Bitterblue: I will have to reread both books, but I do believe that Bitterblue has now supplanted Katsa in my mind (though I still think that Graceling is my favorite novel). She is prickly and defiant, vulnerable, ashamed, prone to defensive violence and crying, and above all, deeply empathetic. Her narrative was funny and emotional and self-deprecating, and it might just be me, but it seemed like it had a particular cadence, a properness to the style, that was all her character. Plus, she’s always armed with daggers – how cool is that? I could stay in her head for more books.
Katsa & Po: Readers will be happy that the dynamic duo returns in this book, especially those who are interested in seeing how their relationship of “no commitment” works in practice. They are super intense, all of their emotions heightened, and their love story is still one of those epic tales. They accept each other for who they are but they do fight and make-up constantly. Po is in this book quite a bit more than Katsa; he becomes more of friend and sounding board for Bitterblue, while Katsa is a beloved but still awe-inspiring figure for Bitterblue.
Giddon: It actually took me a while to remember Giddon from Graceling, mostly because he didn’t stand out much in that story and here he has a surprisingly strong influence. He’s gone through a lot of changes, grown quite wise and good-natured, and his mentor-mentee-style friendship with Bitterblue develops organically. I would not mind a romance developing there, to be honest, though I guess he’s a little old for her in some contexts: he’s 27, she’s 18. Still, they have great chemistry.Saf (Sapphire): This Lienid-raised (but not born) sailor turned do-gooder thief is Bitterblue’s love interest and, like Cashore’s other books, he has a push-pull relationship with her, with a lot of fun banter, emotional connection, and physical heat. She meets him on one of her nightly excursions into her kingdom to see what the people are really like – not just what her advisors tell her – and he quickly becomes a touchstone for her in her search for her people’s true needs.The Advisors: Bitterblue’s four main advisors – Runnemood, Rood, Darby, and Thiel – just about broke my heart. Especially Thiel.
Death: This is not Death of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fame. Pronounced Deeth, Death is the best librarian of all time. That is all.
Style & Substance
Does this book need to be 545 pages? No.
Is it quite slow and tiresome in places? Yes.
Was I sad when I got to the end and realized there was no more? YES.
This story is all about truth and lies – uncovering secrets, and secrets within secrets; rediscovering lost memories; figuring out who is lying, and why, and who else knows – and trying to find a space in between, where those who need to tell the truth can, and those who cannot bear the truth can wait until they are strong enough.
All these secrets make for an intricate mystery, or series of mysteries, and what I love most about them was how they tie together the personal and the political for each character. Po’s secret about his Grace have ramifications both for his friendships and family, but also for any monarchs who might seek to use it; he spends a lot of this book struggling with coming out into the open, refusing to keep lying to the people he loves, and arguing with Katsa whether it’s better to be safe and lie or to be honest and free. Bitterblue, similarly, lies to Saf and his friend Teddy about her identity for good reasons – to learn what they know, in her pursuit of truth – but her shame at abusing their trust has repercussions both for her as a queen and for her as a person (and as a woman in the full swing of her first real crush). Everyone in this story has a secret that they are ashamed of; everyone tells lies that they need to be forgiven; and everyone has a truth that they fear to tell.
A lot of the little mysteries – what’s up with the stealing of gargoyles? Why are the buildings in one section of town in such disrepair? Why does Bitterblue hate spiral staircases? – are just that, and they can be distracting, but the way they build upon each other turns in to something both intricate and monumental. It takes time for them all to come together, what with the sheer volume of them, and I did get impatient with it at times, but overall I thought the connections were often subtle instead of slow. For example, Cashore starts laying the groundwork for Bitterblue’s discovery of her mother’s secret messages in her embroidery right away (on page four of the prologue in fact) but it’s only until later that you can see how carefully she’s set that up. It’s no Megan Whalen Turner-level of plotting, but I think it’s very close, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cashore develop more skills in that direction. She’s got the basics down; now she just needs to realize that just because, for example, she finds ciphers super interesting and has done a lot of research doesn’t mean that we need pages of Bitterblue translating coded messages symbol for symbol. Just tell us briefly how Bitterblue figures it out and give us the information we need.
This story is also all about blame and responsibility. Who is accountable for Leck’s crimes now that he is gone? He used his mind-controlling abilities to make people steal, and murder, and rape, and a host of many other things both large and small, but who was acting of their own free will, capitalizing on the general madness of the kingdom, and who was under Leck’s control? Who should bear the brunt of recompense to his victims? These are all interesting and important questions and the novel does a great job of exploring them, but what I liked most about it was the way Cashore brought in various reactions to self-blame – many who were closest to Leck committed the most monstrous crimes, but even though they had no free will of their own, how do they begin to forgive themselves? And of course, Cashore ties in nicely elements like Bitterblue’s taking responsibility for her actions as queen, and Po taking responsibility for his secret-keeping, and so on.
Finally, this is a story about the past, and as such, the ending is not so much an ending as a beginning. This might throw some people who expect a neatly tied-up story, not one that ends with a lot of the characters essentially starting over with new knowledge, or in essentially the same place but with a new outlook, or right on the verge of some huge thing that will take years more to realize. But it’s an ending with a purpose, one that’s been building the whole novel – it’s really a story of the beginning of Bitterblue’s true reign in Monsea, and much of it is bittersweet, involving her painful but necessary loss of innocence.
This is the section where I discuss romance, and while the romance between Saf and Bitterblue is more of a side element than a focus, it’s still the one that I think will be divisive among fans. I’ll go on record as really liking how it turns out. As first loves go, it’s pretty damn good and realistic. Both of them are young and strong-willed, and neither willing to give up their dreams for the other yet, and why should they be? I’m tired of YA romances that have two young people fall in love for the first time and have that love become an epic, soul-matey, you are my only future thing. Sure, sometimes the first person we fall in love with becomes The One, but not usually, and I appreciated how Saf and Bitterblue could grow close, acknowledge that there’s something there that could develop into much much more, but also acknowledge that the timing isn’t right for either of them. That doesn’t mean he can’t ever come back, but it gives them room. It’s sad, but it’s honest.
Otherwise, there was a lot of gay characters in this book, of which I am of course a fan. Raffin and Ban are delightful, as always, but there is also a lesbian couple, and [Po’s brother Skye (hide spoiler)]. My other favorite romance is Death and his books and his mangy cat.
Mood Ring: Cloudy Gray with a Hint of Sparkle
The overall tone of this book is haunting and melancholy. The ending is hopeful, and there are some bright spots, but too many of the characters are living a tragedy to call this a happy book. There were dark elements in Graceling and Fire, but neither of them took them as seriously as this book.
Author’s Note (Acknowledgements)
I found it interesting that Cashore mentioned being counseled on Po and disability politics after she used his Grace to compensate for his blindness in Graceling (as a “magical cure”). I can’t say I would have ever thought of that, but I like how she acknowledges it as a potential problem and discusses what she tried to do about it inBitterblue.
Librarian Super Powers
Death is one of the greatest librarian characters I’ve read. His Grace is to read inhumanely fast and remember every word forever (that would be my chosen superpower!); he grows giddy over research – the harder, the more impossible and obscure, the better; he’s snarky; and he has a library cat. The role he plays in the story, as one of the few people who remembers what Leck did (unsurprisingly, Leck censored and altered Monsea’s historical texts to suit his own purposes) and can acknowledge it honestly, is integral. Plus, I just loved how he and Bitterblue start out disapproving of each other and grow to be such comrades as they realized their goals are the same. At one point, she gives him an impossibly hard mental task and he tells her she is the queen every librarian dreams of. Lovely.
Monsea=Drusilla, Leck=Angelus (a totally unnecessary Buffy the Vampire Slayer analogy)
You know how back in the day, Angelus tortured innocent nun Drusilla until she went bonkers, and you spent all of your time either feeling sorry for her or being totally creeped out? In this analogy, Angelus is Leck, the torturing psychopath, and Drusilla is everybody in Monsea (the realm as a whole).
Obvs, Cashore’s other books. But also, while Bitterblue lacks the preternaturally tight writing of Megan Whalen Turner’s and Melina Marchetta’s fantasy novels, I think the crossover appeal is strong for the Queen’s Thief series and the Lumatere Chronicles. Also, Tamora Pierce, particularly her Trickster’s Choice series of two books.