After the success of her previous novels, Graceling and Fire, American YA fantasy author Kristin Cashore set a magical saga in motion that begged her to write a third book. With crucial questions left unanswered, and an unhinged world to bring back from darkness, Bitterblue had a lot to live up to. Whilst this third outing into the Graceling realm eclipsed the farfetched and forced Fire, it didn’t quite match the strength of Cashore’s debut from whence the enthralling and fanciful tale was born.
Eight years after the events of Graceling, where fierce warrior Katsa killed the sadistic King Leck, young Princess Bitterblue is now the Queen, with the world seeming to finally be at peace around her. But the guise of peace is nothing more than a facade, with the Seven Kingdoms still devastated by the brutal horror imposed upon them at the hands of Bitterblue’s father. Bitterblue herself has been shielded from the extent of her father’s malevolence; even those she trusts live in a constant state of pretence around her, deceiving their Queen to ‘protect’ her. As Bitterblue’s advisors relentlessly try to bury the past, it becomes more and more apparent that the past can’t be buried until the very monstrous depths have been exposed. Feeling frustrated at the state of her life and her own lack of knowledge about what’s happening outside the Kingdom gates, Bitterblue starts sneaking out of the castle at night in disguise. It’s there that the deceit begins to unravel before her eyes and with the help of two do-good thieves, who steal back what has already been stolen, in addition to her trusty allies from book one, Bitterblue must try to piece her world back together before it destroys itself.
Bitterblue is a fine fantasy novel, comparable to the likes of George R.R. Martin with its devastating tragedy and, whilst not akin to his quality of writing, it holds up to the engaging fantasy that the Game of Thrones writer is, and indeed J.R.R. Tolkien was, so expert at creating. Cashore has expanded upon her Seven Kingdoms landscape to such an extent that it’s both easy and wonderful to envisage. By opening the pages of Bitterblue you awaken another world, a world that you want to climb inside and explore in all its beauty and terror. Bitterblue is a rich composition of intertwined characters and stories; like a ball of yarn being unravelled slowly but steadily – you know that only by reaching the end of the strand will the truth be wholly revealed.
Cashore has such flair for character description that you feel as if you know the people you’re reading about; moreover, you emphasise with the turmoil and struggles they’re faced with. Her female protagonists are always strong minded, though not without simple human weaknesses that help keep the novel grounded. Bitterblue, much like Graceling heroine Katsa, is spirited, with a sense of self worth and a compassion that endears you to her. She’s more vulnerable than Katsa though, having no special ability, and as such you fear for her wellbeing throughout. Thank goodness for the stories male characters – Giddon, Po, Saf and co – who protect Bitterblue with their lives and carry strength and valour by the bucket load. Think of Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, willing to do anything to protect those he loves, these are the characters that leave lasting impressions and Cashore knows how to invent winning characters that her readers will fall in love with.
It’s magical to have Katsa and Po back together again, their fiery relationship transferring over from Graceling with the same passion and intensity that made it so intriguing in the first place. Po was an instant favourite and his reintroduction into the saga was a wise move to hold on to fans of the first book.
Cashore isn’t afraid of tackling issues of equality and sexuality, which she does without an ounce of prejudice – something you’d expect from a seasoned writer nowadays but it’s commendable all the same. Whilst she never lingers on the subjects of homosexuality or feminism for long periods of time, Cashore has a knack for exploring the intricacies of what’s considered the ‘norm’, without labouring the point or dumping her opinions on the reader.
Bitterblue is a charming read, transporting you to a world that’s full of fantasy, love and horrors. At times a tragic and emotional tale that is genuinely heart breaking, it ultimately ends with a hopeful and touching conclusion. It’s a battle between those fighting to bring the truth to light and those trying to bury it – very much like real life in a sense. Widely considered Cashore’s final novel in the series, we can only hope that it isn’t!