Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore. Penguin, 2012. Currently Available.
Joint Review: Since Brianna is moving to Wisconsin this week and we both have been excited about this one for awhile, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and write a joint review while we could still sit on the same couch to write it.
Face Value: We love the illustrated covers, and the way the trilogy feels connected without being repetitive. The keys are actually a vital element to the story, noting that whoever designed the cover quite possibly read the book. All good signs. Only major downside is the slightly creepy girl’s face, obscured by the image in the background. It’s the most generic thing about this cover and the stock photo detracts from the beautiful illustrations. And this isn’t just the cover, but the illustrations by Ian Schoenherr embedded throughout the book are extraordinary and add so much to the story itself.
Does it Break the Slate? Absolutely. Obviously. There was no question, having read the first two books that this would be an overwhelmingly Slatebreaking read. The satisfying part was seeing in what ways the Slatebreaking elements were integrated. Bitterblue is a Slatebreaker in a totally different way than Katsa is. She’s vulnerable, she doesn’t have the physical capabilities of her predecessors in these books, we see her get scared. BUT this might even make her more of a Slatebreaker in the long run, because we see her confront her fear, confront her personal tragedies and emotional fallout in a complex, believable, dynamic and incredibly brave way. She is a character who confronts both the horrible things in her and her kingdom’s past, as well as the privilege inherent in her station and above all else wants to do the right thing.
Who would we give it to? Unlike Graceling and Fire, this one wouldn’t work as a standalone novel. But I would recommend this trilogy to any reader of fantasy and many people who generally avoid the genre too. Cashore creates a world with no plot holes or worldbuilding confusion that addresses contemporary political and social landscapes in a really powerful way.
BRIANNA: I was so excited to revisit the Seven Kingdoms with this book, and the greatest pleasure of reading about Bitterblue is that she is a growing ruler – she is determining what kind of a leader she is going to be. As a reading experience that’s so fulfilling because she herself is going through an intense period of change mirrored by the experience of the kingdom.
SARAH: Exactly – to me, this was at its heart, a book about recovery. Bitterblue grew up in an abusive household that was a direct reflection of the way Leck ruled his kingdom. To become the kind of Queen she wants to be, she realizes she needs to deal with what happened to her, and to really find out what happened to everyone else while her father was running. Other people, including many of her advisers, want to deal with things differently. They want to cover up the past because they can’t emotionally come to terms with what happened. Watching people deal with the aftermath of trauma in such different ways was heartbreaking and beautifully evoked through the narrative.
BRIANNA: For me one of Bitterblue’s greatest realizations is when she sees that everyone has to cope with this in a different way. At times she realizes she is asking too much from people who were directly involved in these traumas. So she finds different ways for different people to heal. This is part of how she figures out how to navigate monarchy. We see her recognize her power, and own it – she is Queen, and wants to be Queen, which is important. But she wants to be Queen in a different way than has been traditionally carried out .
SARAH: And it’s not only about wanting to be a kinder, more compassionate, less evil ruler than her father was. It’s about her truly figuring out what kind of person she is, what kind of rule is appropriate and best for people. We can see how smart she is, how thoughtful, and how hard she is working to do what’s best for the greater good.
BRIANNA: Another awesome part of the book is the way sexuality is handled. Bitterblue is a sexual being and at 18, she knows that about herself. Because of her sheltered upbringing, her position and her history she hasn’t had many opportunities (until partway through the book) to explore these things, but she knows she wants to and goes about it with intent, choice and caution.
SARAH: Plus (and this goes along with the richness of the world that is created) contraception is a part of the conversation about sex and the women in her world understand both the implications of her sexuality and the education she might need. This goes back to what I always loved about the attitude toward sex in Graceling, and the relationship between Katsa and Po, which is again beautifully portrayed here. And once again, there’s no need to wrap up the story with a marriage!
BRIANNA: The romantic relationships between characters throughout the book are committed, rich and beautiful, without needing to be defined in marriage. All kinds of relationships are presented, including homosexual relationships, long term partnerships and respectful if casual interactions.
SARAH: All of this sets up a bigger difference between the meaningful, loving, respectful relationships between these characters and the violent, abusive relationships that Leck had with his family, his advisors and his subjects. Which is significant in that this book doesn’t need a new villain. I can’t think of another fantasy that does this. That the villain died in a previous book, there’s no possibility he will magically come back, and yet the major conflict is still dealing with the repercussions of his actions. We don’t have to create a new one. It’s very powerful, and it speaks to how horrific Leck is, but its also brilliant storytelling.
BRIANNA: And that gives us all these amazing characters who were resilient enough to cope with Leck’s Grace and come out on the other side. The one that sticks out to me most is Death, because he has the gall to challenge Bitterblue, frequently, but in a way that pushes her to better herself. I also have a soft spot for librarian characters. And the work that Death is doing is so important, and not easy. He has to have an incredibly strong character to be the sole vessel for a lot of the horrific information that comes to light. The relationship between Death and Bitterblue by the end of the book demonstrates a professional interaction that will continue to serve her and the kingdom throughout her reign.
SARAH: Ultimately, we loved this book, and the whole series, and would like to slap a giant Slatebreaking medal on all of them.
Reviewed from one library copy and one copy purchased at Barnes and Noble.