King Leck has been dead and gone for eight years. His deadly Grace–the preternatural ability that allowed him to influence people and control an entire kingdom–will never hurt anyone in Monsea ever again.
Crowned queen at just ten years old, Bitterblue is still haunted at eighteen by the ghastly legacy Leck left in his kingdom. Monsea is now filled with broken people and more secrets than she can begin to fathom. Trapped by the bureaucracy of running a kingdom, Bitterblue knows little of day-to-day life in Bitterblue City and even less about how to begin to repair an entire country so irreparably damaged by Leck’s reign of lies and horror.
When she begins exploring the secrets and puzzles that abound in Monsea, Bitterblue comes to understand that the key to securing her kingdom’s future is inextricably tied to understanding not just Monsea’s and Leck’s past but also her own in Bitterblue (2012) by Kristin Cashore.
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Bitterblue is a companion to Cashore’s earlier novels Graceling and Fire. The story of the seven kingdoms starts in Graceling with Katsa’s story. Fire is a prequel to Graceling with Bitterblue set about eight years after the conclusion of Graceling.
Although this book is not, in many ways, the beginning of the story, Bitterblue can easily be read out of order. While the beginning of the story may be muddled or confusing , the feeling is not inappropriate given the content of Bitterblue. Certain nuances with common places and characters will be perceived differently but as with many strong novels, any of the books in the Graceling trilogy can be the beginning of your reading experience.
I have many complicated feelings about Graceling and Fire. Before starting Bitterblue, I knew it would either become my favorite of Cashore’s Graceling novels or it would be the one I liked the least. I suspected it would be the former when I saw the lovely cover (art by Natalie C. Sousa, designed by Kelly Eismann) and the stunning illustrations marking each section division in the book (illustrated by Ian Schoenherr). Upon finishing the novel, I can state without doubt that Bitterblue is easily my favorite and, in my opinion, the best of Cashore’s Graceling books.
As the title suggests, this story focuses on Bitterblue. Characters readers grew to love in Graceling do appear here with varying levels of importance to the story.* Fire‘s place in the Graceling universe is also better explained as Cashore ties the three books seamlessly together.
Cashore is at the top of her game as she conjures the complicated history and current state of Monsea. Instead of shying away from the damage created by Leck’s brutality, Cashore stares at it directly to create a complex and often painfully real kingdom with flaws, scars, and sometimes a fair bit of beauty and resilience despite Leck’s influence. (As Bitterblue learns more about the specifics of Leck’s cruelty, the novel does get heavy–not overly so and not to ill-effect. The material is often brutal and will stay with readers long after this story is told.)
While moments in both Graceling and Fire often felt anti-climactic or excessive, the entirety of Bitterblue is carefully plotted and purposefully presented. Even at more than 540 pages (hardcover, with a cast of character and additional maps to be found at the end of the story), Bitterblue never veers into the tangential or extraneous. As with the large cast of characters who all matter, every plot device is an important part of the whole here.
Cashore also makes use of a variety of motifs throughout the story including keys and ciphers. The recurring themes of literacy and storytelling also add another dimension to the narrative as characters explore the power of memory and claiming one’s past to move forward.
Both subtler and more nuanced than Cashore’s earlier novels, Bitterblue is as much its own story as the culmination of a chronicle three books in the making.
*Oh my gosh! Giddon is finally as awesome as I always knew he could be in Graceling!
Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, White Cat by Holly Black, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Proxy by Alex London, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley, Soundless by Richelle Mead, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*