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.

Darth Vader was his sled

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Corbenic, by Catherine Fisher

Corbenic moves in some well-trod circles, but it manages to execute them interestingly. It’s an urban-fantasy (as I understand the term) coming-of-age story, but it’s pretty far afield from the Chosen One battling fantasy monsters fare which characterizes so much young adult fantasy (and urban fantasy, if I understand it, just means the monsters are in present-day New York or London or somesuch). This review contains moderate spoilers.

Notably, Corbenic leaves it extremely openended as to whether (a) there is anything paranormal or fantastic at all happening, (b) whether the protagonist actually has any sort of special destiny, and (c) whether he accomplishes anything at all. The story wears its fantastical trappings lightly, and being filtered through the perceptions of a young man who reasonably fears he may be suffering from schizophrenic hallucinations makes our narrator just untrustworthy enough that, really, one could argue nothing fantastical happens at all.

Now, more about that narrator. Cal (who it is intimated has a full name of deep mythical resonance, but the obvious choice, “Percival”, is not something which would generally be shortened to “Cal”) is actually an awfully unpleasant young man. Raised in poverty, his only apparent desire in life is for the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle; hounded by his clingy, schizophrenic, and addicted mother, he’s tied in awful knots of love and hate and guilt. Cal is not unsympathetic: it’s clear why he would think the way he does, and he does indeed seem to have had a god-awful life, but it’s hard for an average fantasy reader to ride around in the head of someone who, on a trip into town, buys and lusts immoderately over a silk necktie, and attempts to hock the clearly magical sword given to him by the Fisher King. Unlike in so many stories, the resistance to the call of adventure isn’t mere Campbell-flavored window-dressing: it’s kind of at the core of the protagonist’s identity, and he keeps resisting abnormality until he’s managed to fuck things up hopelessly (harming several people profoundly in the process).

Don’t go into Corbenic expecting par-for-the-course fantasy fare, is my basic point here. It’s not actually urban fantasy so much as fantasy-themed psychodrama. It’s done well, and it’s an easy read. The prose doesn’t entirely sparkle, but it more than serves its purpose.

Fire by Kristin Cashore

So, to recap, I read and enjoyed Graceling. so it stands to reason I would get around to its sequels when possible.

Fire is not quite a sequel; in fact, chronologically speaking, it’s a prequel, and thematically, it’s just a shared-world story. But it’s the second book in the Seven Kingdoms series, which makes it presumably a followup book to Graceling. Certainly the one notable connection between the two books only makes dramatic sense if they’re read in the publication order.

To start with the good, Fire is excellently written, with the right level of detail and interesting themes. As in Graceling, women struggling with the burdens of power in a world unwilling to accept female empowerment is a major theme. The particulars are different enough to make the exploration from another angle rather refreshing: Katsa and Fire are very different personalities, having internalized quite different notions of responsible use of their power, guilt, and sexuality. Both are tempestuous, strong-willed characters, but they seem to be driven by nearly opposite forces. Having extensively explored emotional inhibition in her previous work, Cashore now deals with the perils and struggles of a far-too-open personality. So, thematically, Fire definitely works as a companion to Graceling, providing both counterpoint and common ground.

However, even so, the weakest aspect of Fire turns out to be its comparison to Graceling. It is somewhat less engrossing of a page-turner, and I might qualify it as significantly weaker in plot. Some of its weakness might derive from its shared-world aspect, as there is a peculiar cul-de-sac of a subplot which seems to have no real place in the story except in order to kludge in a character from Graceling (no details, as such would be a spoiler for Graceling, but it’s obvious from the prologue who I’m talking about).

The shared-world aspect in fact creates more problems than it solves, even above and beyond the dubious choice to try for character continuity. After all, the eponymous Seven Kingdoms of the series were entirely described in the first book; the addition of an extra kingdom and a region of roving sea pirates, both of which are cut off from the rest of the world by a conveniently impassible mountain range (which apparently gets passed twice, one of them in this story), feels a bit contrived. The presence of fantastical mind-controlling animals on this side of the mountains is also a bit problematic: in Graceling, mind control was a weird, exotic, and terrifying power, all while just on the other side of the mountains, shielding one’s mind from the commonplace seductive telepathic beasts is a basic survival skill. It’s weird from a worldbuilding point of view, and it’s weird from a population-genetic point of view.

But these are mostly places where Fire falls short of, or fails to properly mesh with, its predecessor work. Taken on its own merits, it’s really very good, except for the aforementioned shoehorned-in character. I remain favorably impressed by Kristen Cashore’s talent for a good story with intriguing characters, and I’ll read Bitterblue when the chance arises.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I had read that Graceling and its sequels were unusually good as young adult fantasy goes, and had particularly good handling of gender. That was enough to get me on board, and for the most part it delivers on its promises.

So taking on specifically the gender issues: Cashore manages to work a fair bit of exploration of gender roles and expectations into the narrative without making it an overdominant theme. Katsa coming to grips with her place as an atypical woman in a society with definite ideas of feminity is thoughtfully done, and well-focused by the choice of minor focus characters like Giddon and Hilda, both of whom embody ideas about feminine roles which Katsa subverts. Her relationship with Po, by way of contrast, presents an example of admiration unfettered by gender expectations. All in all, there’s a lot to like in the presentation of female characters — there aren’t a lot of them, I’ll admit, but the ones there are turn out to be very well realized.

It’s also a debut novel, which I would normally grant significant latitude in terms of style and craft, but honestly Cashore doesn’t seem to need it. She’s got a good grasp of style, with a well-balanced expository depth: scenes and action are well-described but not overdetailed. I recall encountering a few bits which fell very slightly flat stylistically, but the fact that I don’t remember specifically what they were means they can’t have been that bad.

There are a few flubs, to my mind, in worldbuilding and characterization. I’m a bit annoyed by the cultural/racial essentialism in having one of the Seven Kingdoms be the designated Good Guys: the nice folks with a thriving economy and significant gender equity and no prejudice against the Graced. There are of course decent (and not-decent) people from the other societies we see, but there’s a pervasive feel that the Lienids are just inherently good. A few of the characters feel a bit wrong to me too: most of them are fleshed out well, with a believable blend of good and bad points, but I have some trouble with our protagonist and the big villain (whose identity is a mystery for much of the book, so I’ll leave him unnamed). Katsa’s problem, to me, is that her flaws don’t really sync too well with her history. We see in detail how she is impulsive and impatient, and needs to be reined in by er more even-tempered associates. This doesn’t quite square, to my mind, with the established history of her forming a covert injustice-fighting network spanning the five central kingdoms. It seems it’d make a lot more sense to attribute the administration to Raffin or Oll, both of whom seem like awfully organization-minded guys. And then there’s the villain. He’s authentically terrifying, but he could be terrifying simply by being power-mad and domineering. The petty sadism (he chops up puppies!) tips him over a little bit into farce. I’m not sure what the sadism is doing here, to be frank, unless it’s just for shock value.

However, despite my dwelling on the few places where this book got it wrong, it got it right a lot more, and was an enjoyable page-turner. It packed a lot of good stuff into a fairly short read (which is also welcome; in the wake of Harry Potter, it seems that enormous tomes for the young-adult set are popular, and enormous tomes in fantasy have always had their fans, so it’s nice to see a short book deserve its hype).