Queen Bitterblue is no ordinary girl. She is, after all, the ruler of Monsea. Yet, compared to the protagonists of Kristin Cashore’s previous novels she’s practically run-of-the-mill. Unlike Fire and Katsa, Bitterblue has no superpowers. Of course her life and her role are uniquely privileged and burdened with responsibility, but Bitterblue is a real girl, someone to whom I can truly relate.
In Bitterblue, we find ourselves eight years after the end of Graceling. Bitterblue has become the queen of Monsea, a kingdom broken and suffering from the legacy of her father Leck’s cruelty. Barely more than a girl and still suffering herself, Bitterblue struggles to understand her people’s problems while her advisors keep her out of the city and all evidence of the city out of the palace. When, finally, she decides to educate herself about the land she governs, she finds an alarming state of violence and deception. She also begins to find the strength that she needs to pull her people through this state.
Bitterblue is amazing in part because of the threads that Cashore expertly picks up from her previous two books. Somehow the characters that we revisit such as Katsa, Po, Giddon, and Fire all seem true to their original selves while at the same time we learn more about them because now we see them through Bitterblue’s perspective. For example, while she loves Katsa and Po dearly, she occasionally feels excluded when she’s around them because of the intensity of their connection. This doesn’t make me dislike Katsa and Po, it only makes them more faceted. Bitterblue is so recognizable in these moments. Like all of us, she sometimes feels self-conscious and lost in the world, sometimes longs for the bond that others have and doubts whether someone could love her that way.
Bitterblue’s story is not a romance in the way that Katsa’s and Fire’s stories are. There is a romantic element, but the relationships that matter most to Bitterblue – that ultimately support and save her – are her friendships. Bitterblue has not had much trust in her life, and we see the damage that this has done to her as clearly as we see the broken down buildings that Cashore describes throughout the city. Bitterblue could not trust her father, and even developed intricate mental exercises to protect her mind from his influence. Bitterblue learns that she can not trust the people who are supposed to be her advisers. Even the tentative friendships that she forms with a group of rebels in the city are founded on deceit. As Bitterblue begins to shape her rule in earnest, trust and friendship are the are the balms that mend her wounds, and those of her city.
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says that a writer must “spend it all.” Cashore spends it all in Bitterblue, as she does in her previous novels. Reading it, I got no sense that she held anything back – not the beauty of her language nor the twists of the plot, both of which make Bitterblue a compelling story both as an emotional journey for the characters and as an exciting adventure. All of the characters and plot turns unfold in their fullness and feel powerfully, satisfyingly complete at the book’s end. This is what I truly appreciate about Cashore’s writing. She doesn’t manipulate or tease her reader, leaving cliff hangers or unnecessary complications designed to make us hunger for a sequel (something that more and more writers are doing these days). Instead, she trusts her work to recommend itself. Which it does. Just as Bitterblue finds trust to be essential in her relationships, readers find a mutual trust with Cashore. She will continue to write heartfelt, complex, exciting stories. And we, of course, will continue to read them.