After reading a review of Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore over at Books Without Any Pictures, I was thoroughly intrigued and reserved the book at the library. I got the book home eventually, but forgetting what it as about, I saw the book cover and put off reading it because I wasn’t really wanting to read a light and fluffy teenage angst story. So I set it aside until it was almost due back at the library and then I reluctantly picked it up, stealing myself for love triangles and moaning while throwing oneself onto the bed. (I should have just re-read Grace’s review). I opened up the first page, and was utterly shocked, and slightly horrified (to be honest), when I found myself reading about domestic abuse and black magicks. And then I was utterly transfixed as the story unfolded, and I couldn’t put the book down.
Bitterblue is a young queen who rules over a land where people Graced with magic live trying to rebuild their lives after Bitterblues sadomasochistic and psychotic father ruled for forty years. Each person with a Grace has something very specific to their ability. For example, one of my favorite characters, the librarian, was Graced with the ability to recall every word of every book he had ever read. Bitterblue realizes that the horrors her father visited, not only upon her poor mother, but upon the land and its people as well were so extensive there was little hope of rebuilding if she continued to be in the dark about his dirty deeds. He was Graced with the ability to make people forget what they had done, to rewrite their minds and memories, so even those people involved with his administration can’t seem to help Bitterblue. She isn’t sure if it is because the memories are locked away from mind melding or that they are too painful to recall or that her advisers are simply lying to her, so she begins to sneak out of the castle at night, going into the town nearby in disguise, listening to the storytellers and trying to divine what really happened before her reign. What she finds out was not what she expected, and the people behind the doing not who she expected either. A lot of court intrigue culminating in a complicated ending.
Bitterblue is simply one of the best world building stories I have read in a really long time. Though a sequel to Fire and its companion Graceling, this book stands very well on its own. (And from the reviews I’ve read, people seem to be more blown away by Bitterblue than the other two. But I still want to read them.) Cashore has envisioned and aptly codified into being, a world of intricate and intrinsic magic that is absolutely beautiful and terrifying in its vividness. This is not a lighthearted YA novel with love triangles and sighing. In fact, I would hardly classify this as young adult even with a teenage protagonist. The issues dealt with in this book are hard, horrifying issues, abuse, verbally, mentally, and physically; betrayal by people one should be able to trust; abandonment, intentional and unintentional, all woven together and explored in depth throughout the book.
Each character in the book comes with a solid background, real emotions, and a unique voice, which give them the ability to aptly deal with some very heavy issues. Bitterblue is an amazingly strong heroine who is allowed to be vulnerable in her youth and her lack of understanding as she fights to discover what is real and what it all means. She is intelligent, deciphering hidden messages, seeking out people who have the knowledge she needs to acquire, and handling with wisdom beyond her years the big and small issues her kingdom faces. There is a love story here, with a boy from the wrong side of the castle wall. She learns from him, from the experience, and it makes her better person. I was quite happy with the unfolding of their relationship, finally a YA (ish) book that dealt with the reality of the situation instead of working around its impossibility with implausibility. But more so intriguing was that the love story was not the main focus of this story, rather Bitterblue acquiring knowledge and learning to be a better ruler were the main focus, and her growth as a woman integral to the tale, making this one of the best books I have read this year.
Remember my review of Child of Fire, where I said I wish the protagonist was a woman because that was the female character I was looking for? One with flaws, but the fight to survive and do what was right? Well, that female protagonist I was looking for, I found in Bitterblue. A girl turning into a woman, with flaws but the determination to do what is right for herself, for her friends, and for her kingdom. I know I’m gushing, but this was simply such a smart book, in its characters and plot points that I’m hard pressed to find much of anything that I thought could have been done differently. I was annoyed with Bitterblue’s character in the beginning, but as the book developed and she developed, I fell in love so gradually I simply marveled at Cashore’s storytelling abilities. I’m eagerly looking forward to getting my hands on the other books in this series.