Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

So this is the third book in a series: its a strict sequel, chronologically and plotwise, to Graceling, and it ties in at certain points to the mostly unrelated work Fire. It is pretty much impossible to write about this book without spoiling a significant plot point occurring about two-thirds or the way into Graceling, so I’ll cut for spoilers.

So the latter section of Graceling involved the rescue of Princess Bitterblue from her psychopathic, mind-controlling father, King Leck of Monsea, who was killed by the end of the story. Two books later, Leck is still the villain (OK, the middle book was a prequel, so he was still alive then). It takes guts to make the villain of your story someone who’s dead at the beginning of it, but it kind of works.

And then again, it kind of doesn’t. The overarching plot of the story is this broad, sloppy quest of Bitterblue’s to try to heal her traumatized nation, and this goal sprawls over into all sorts of secondary goals: improving literacy and infrastructure, providing redress to the wronged, figuring out who can be trusted and who can’t, and determining just what Leck was doing and why. Add to this a (seemingly irrelevant) heist of the crown jewels, perfunctory introduction of intrigue among some of the other kingdoms, and a romance with a thief, and the entire story starts to spin out of control. Cashore is keeping a lot of threads running, and at the end a few seem to come a bit loose even as the majority of them get knotted up.

Thematically, there are basically two main strands, and everything else feels a bit pointless. There’s a story of national and personal trauma: basically, how nations and individuals recover from horrors they don’t want to think about, much less confront. This element shows up in the storytelling rooms, the dysfunctional infrastructure, and the untrustworthy advisors with their own agendas, and is well-handled except for decidedly absurd elements such as the whole gargoyle-theft subplot.

The other theme is pretty standard coming-of-age. Bitterblue is eighteen years old, but she is, as we’re often told, physically small, and her advisors seem to be constantly overriding her agency. For these reasons she comes across much more as a vulnerable girl than as a woman. This seems to be intentional, as over the course of the story she is imbued with a greater appearance of maturity as she establishes her own agency, finds a role for herself, and dabbles in love and sex. Incidentally, the last of those is not actually a major milestone on her progression to maturity, which is nice, as it’s both a cliché and a bit subtextually problematic.

Bitterblue would be a great story if it had a bit more focus. It’s a pretty good story anyways. Cashore might have felt compelled to bring back major characters from her previous two books for an encore, and this is a bit hit-or-miss. Raffin and Gideon come across as rather irrelevant. Katsa and Po seem there only to provide an example of romantic love. Helda is an authentically welcome reintroduction; she wasn’t in Graceling very much, but was an excellent character. The troop of Dellians who wandered out of the pages of Fire… well, they answer a lot of questions, but they feel kind of deus ex machina and the whole “there’s a secret kingdom on the other side of this impassible mountain range” concept was never the high point of the worldbuilding.

Incidentally, the Dellian delegation ties in with one of the weakest points of the book: the exploration of Leck’s motivation. In Graceling he was a force of tyrannical malice, and in Fire he was a creepy kid. In neither work was he presented as possessing anything so human as motivation beyond self-preservation. He slices up animals and people, yes, but this is never presented as any sort of means to an end.

In Bitterblue we get some big wodges of the Very Secret Diary of King Leck. And for the most part it confirmed what we already knew: that he likes slicing up animals and is a couple sandwiches short of a picnic. The spurious motivation presented involves some nostalgia for the Dells, but this doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot of explanatory power. The glimpse into Leck’s mind we get is deeply unsatisfying, because it consists of about 80% stuff we’d already figured out and 20% explanation-that-doesn’t-really-explain-anything.

I’ve been a bit hard on poor old Kristin Cashore for about 750 words now, so I’d like to reassure you that, yes, I actually liked the whole Seven Kingdoms trilogy. But

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

  1. I read Bitterblue recently and hated it for it’s slow pace.

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