Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
Author: Kristin Cashore
Series: this is a sequel to GRACELING and a companion to FIRE, though it works as a standalone if you don’t mind some spoilers for each of the previous books
Publisher: Dial Books
Publication Date: May 2012
Pushed By: Charlotte
Status: keeper, keeper, keeper
Bitterblue for purchase at The Book Depository
Bitterblue for purchase at Kobo
Review copy received at Book Expo America.
BITTERBLUE demands two reviews.
The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version:
OMGBITTERBLUEOMG this book will not get out of my head I loved it I loved it I loved it OMGBITTERBLUEOMG seriously you guys I don’t remember the last time I felt this way it’s one of those instances where a book just totally and completely floored me and I keep coming back to little things like Death with his cats and all of a sudden I’m crying again and there’s so much here there’s just so much it’s a chronicle of disconnection and recovery and pain and joy and OMGBITTERBLUEOMG the characters are fantastic the prose is so wonderfully simple but also incredibly deep and there are so many levels and layers and gorgeous bits and heartwarming bits and heartbreaking bits and I am sosososo happy that the love interest was bisexual AND IT WASN’T EVEN AN ISSUE OMGBITTERBLUEOMG I have so many thoughts too many thoughts I’m leaving everything out absolutely everything I wish I could just open my mind to y’all and let you pick through it because I loved it I loved it I loved it OMGBITTERBLUEOMG.
The Version That (Sort of) Makes Sense:
I loved BITTERBLUE.
Some summary, for those who require it: Bitterblue is the young queen of Monsea, a country struggling to regroup after thirty-five years of misrule. Leck, the former king, possessed the ability to tell lies no one could help but believe--a power he wielded with the utmost sadism. Even eight years after his death, truth remains a rare commodity.
Bitterblue is tired of accepting the past as unknowable. One night, she sneaks out of the castle in search of the truth on the streets, and gets much more than she bargained for.
I read BITTERBLUE as a chronicle of disconnection. Bitterblue is disconnected from her people by virtue of her privileged position; from the past because of the things her father did to her mind; and from her country’s traditions due to the suppression of information that stretches back through the decades. The novel is very much her attempt to make sense of what has happened; to gain the tools she needs to become connected to her country, its people, and her own purpose in its administration.
In the beginning, everything is muddled. Leck’s lies, and certain peoples’ refusal to deal with them, have made Monsea a country with many questions and few answers. The story centers on Bitterblue’s attempt to sort the lies from the truth and bring her people to a place where they can begin to heal. It’s a constant give and take; a sphere where the known and the unknown tangle together in a rich, often disturbing, tapestry that brings Bitterblue ever closer to discovering who her father truly was, what her kingdom is, and who she’ll become. She comes of age as a person, a queen, and a survivor of abuse.
I'll warn y'all, abuse remains a central theme throughout the book. Leck did more than merely hurt his subjects: he made them complicit in their own abuse and in the abuse of others, and he forced them to like it. This has made it difficult for many of Bitterblue’s people to face the past. They shy away from what their involvement in such activities means. Certain individuals have attempted to bury the pain and degradation, rather than deal with it. Cashore takes a sensitive approach to the material, placing blame where it’s due and acknowledging every victim as a victim.
Neither does she play anything for shock value. The reader can’t help but know that Leck tortured and raped his people, so there’s no need to go into detail. What little is spelled out for us comes in the nature of seemingly smaller, but painfully personal, moments; the sorts of things that matter deeply but might be dismissed as “lesser” amidst a complete chronicle of abuse. I still can’t stop crying over some of the things we learn about Bitterblue’s compatriots.
I find these sorts of revelations deeply painful even in the mostly poorly constructioned fiction; in a book like this, with supurb characterization, they hurt all the more. These characters are fantastic, y'all.
Bitterblue herself is a hell of a girl. She cares deeply for her people and for her friends, though she’s still learning how to deal with much of what she feels. I love the relationships she forges and maintains. She has a particularly complex and fascinating dynamic with the commoners she befriends, and it’s rendered all the moreso because it’s built on lies and a power imbalance she cannot correct.
This stands in contrast to her connection with Po. Po is the only relative with whom Bitterblue has regular contact, and he’s an important part of her life. Even though she and he are cousins, their interactions reminded me much more of siblings. I loved everything that passed between them, and I'm oh-so pleased with what Cashore did with Po's own continuing story.
Perhaps my favourite relationship, though, is the one Bitterblue shares with Giddon. I can’t clearly recall what I thought of Giddon in GRACELING, but I’m pretty sure I was less than impressed on account of the way he reacted to Katsa’s rejection. It seems he’s grown up a lot in the eight years between the two books. I loved him here, and I adored his friendship with Bitterblue, which is based on a refusal to lie to one another. They quickly settle into a pattern of mutual support so satisfying that I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about them. They have a wonderful platonic relationship, and y’all know I think YA needs more of those. People are perfectly capable of working closely together without falling in love, and I'm always glad to see fiction acknowledge that. Still, part of me wanted to throw my thoughts on the matter out the window and root for Giddon, because they have exactly the sort of friendship I most like to see shift into romance.
I did reach a decision before the book ended, but I’ll keep it to myself because it’s a tad spoilerish.
BITTERBLUE is a much less romantic book that neither GRACELING or FIRE, but there is a romance in the background. I’m reluctant to say too much for fear of spoiling y’all, but I was pleased with how Cashore dealt with the limitations involved and the problems that might conceivably arise between the parties. I love, too, that she doesn’t postulate a Happily Ever After ending. The text acknowledges that both Bitterblue and Saf, her love interest, are still young. They enjoy each others’ company, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll spend together forever. And that’s fine. It doesn’t impact what they have in the here and now.
Cashore also takes a realistic, laid back approach to romantic love in all its forms. While Bitterblue herself appears to be hetero, she adopts what I think of as a “dude, whatevs” attitude towards her gay friends. Their sexuality has no effect on how she views them. Her unsettled upbringing has left her far more concerned with how they make their relationships endure than the gender of the person they’re involved with. (At one point, she’s fascinated by a woman who has remained happily married to her husband for forty-eight years.) She makes no assumptions as to anyone’s sexuality, either. When she asks Giddon if he has a partner, she inquires after potential boyfriends as well as girlfriends.
Best of all, it’s a total non-issue when she learns that Saf is bisexual. She meets a guy he was involved with, confirms that said guy is an ex rather than a current flame, and never bothers to think of it again.
I can’t begin to tell you how happy this made me.
Hell, I feel that way about the whole book (which I hope you’ll take for an explanation and an apology as to this review’s jumbled state). I adored it, I adored it, I adored it. Try though I might, I can’t think of a single thing to criticize. I’m sure there must be something, but it’s not something I, personally, can wrap my mind around. So far as I’m concerned, BITTERBLUE is a perfect book.
Welcome to my itty bitty list of Favouritest Books Ever, BITTERBLUE.
6 stars (out of 5) – OMGBITTERBLUEOMG
I was lucky enough to hear Kristin Cashore read the prologue at a New York Public Library event during Book Expo America 2011. Some hella talented musicians improvised the perfect creepy music in the background as she read. It was magical, in an “I’m disturbed” kind of a way.
When I reached the front of Cashore’s BEA line the next day, I made sure to tell her how much I’d enjoyed the reading. I always feel awkward expressing such sentiments (perhaps due to some misguided feeling that my professed enjoyment is a burden to the person who caused it and I ought to stick to less in-your-face forms of appreciation), but I’m glad I did it. Should I ever meet Cashore again, I’ll be sure to tell her how much the book as a whole meant to me.
Also, I suppose I should mention that Cashore has been accused of having "an aggressively liberal agenda" with this book. If conservatism is your schtick, I doubt you’ll enjoy this as much as I did. If you’re okay with aggressively liberal agendas, though, you need to read this.
Oh! And the book reminded me of THE HERO AND THE CROWN by Robin McKinley, but without the disappointing second half. BITTERBLUE is pure gold from start to finish.
One more thing: Bitterblue is a small, eggplant-shaped person. I am a small, eggplant-shaped person, so this endeared her to me. One reads so few books about small, eggplant-shaped people.
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