Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Kristin Cashore

How do you heal an entire kingdom that's been through a nightmare? In the third novel of the Graceling Realm series Queen Bitterblue is the 18 year old ruler of Monsea, and she's out of her depth. It may be eight years since the country was saved from her brutal father, but the kingdom remains plagued by secrets, lies, and violence. As in Fire, the main character has to contend with the legacy of a tyrant.

Bitterblue's advisors are all much older than her, and tend to browbeat her or keep her drowning in paperwork. Feeling stifled, she ventures into the city disguised as an ordinary person. There she finds places where people meet to tell stories of the past, yet fights often break out in these haunts. She encounters Saf, a grumpy young man who resents the queen for being out of touch with what's going on, and his friend Teddy who writes dictionaries. Saf and Teddy are magnets for trouble, although there is a mystery about why anyone would want to hurt them. Bitterblue grows slowly more aware that something is badly wrong in her city, and that a conspiracy eats away at her kingdom.

Many of the characters from Graceling make brief appearances as the Council's secret business takes them to Monsea. For Bitterblue these are her true friends, people she feels she can trust. But they're only around for a short while in between causing political upheaval in other countries and intervening to prevent wars. Bitterblue can call on them for help, but she knows they have their own issues which can dwarf her problems in Monsea.

As queen, Bitterblue lacks freedom and isn't always told the truth, so she hopes to rectify this with her trips into the city. But to find her own truth she has to deceive others, a situation with ethical problems as well as practical ones. Keeping up the pretence that she's a kitchen maid is hard for someone with soft hands and no knowledge of the ingredients of bread, and it only gets more difficult when her new friends get into trouble. There's plenty of action, suspense, and mystery that ramps up as the story progresses.

The angst of not being able to trust those you're close to, and of not being able to tell the whole truth, are themes that dominate. This story is a little more thoughtful and less action-driven than Graceling. Although Bitterblue starts out with quite classic Cashore plotting, it ended up going in directions I wasn't expecting. This is because the novel favours psychological realism over the big, emotional set-piece finale. It left me feeling muddled about the characters, and this is often because they're rounded and complex rather than fitting into stereotypical boxes of heroes, victims, and villains.

Bitterblue's castle also deserves a mention. It's full of hidden corridors and rooms, and peculiar, striking artwork. Rather than an opulent place, it has pieces missing. One of the worst affected areas is the library with its missing books, a metaphor for the country's collective amnesia about what happened during the previous reign, and of attempts to erase that painful history.

Bitterblue rounds off the trilogy with less of the gasping and sighing of a conventional fantasy adventure, and more deep thought and introspection. Read it for an interesting perspective on truth, trust, and truth in lies.

23rd October 2018

Book Details

Year: 2012

Categories: Books

    Female Protagonist  

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Review ©

Source: own copy