(Published in 2013 by Gollancz)
Bitterblue is now Queen of Monsea, after her awful, terrible father, King Leck, was deposed and killed eight years previously. She’s now only just eighteen, and at the start of the novel is still being advised by a council of male advisors much older than she, who are trying, in their various ways, to cope with the carnage and fallout of the previous reign. Leck was a graceling, a person gifted with certain powers, though for a long time, no-one knew it, and his Grace was to make people do what he wanted (part of Bitterblue’s story and Leck’s is told in the earlier novels Graceling and Fire). Bitterblue has been left with a legacy of lies and crime which she is only just beginning to understand.
Since her advisors, she realises, aren’t telling her the truth about what’s going on in Monsea and its city, she begins to sneak out of the palace at night, discovers inns where story-tellers ply their trade, and meets people and makes friends, though there is fallout from her having to reveal her identity, and from her relationship with thief Sapphire.
Characters from Graceling reappear – Katsa and Po, for example, whom Bitterblue loves dearly – and are seen from a slightly different perspective. Po is coming to terms with his blindness, and is beginning to be able to tell people how he can get around.
I liked Bitterblue a lot: the characterisation is excellent, and there are plenty of oddnesses and peculiarities to Cashore’s world of the Seven Kingdoms, with their tyrannical (and occasionally not so tyrannical) rulers. Where it’s really good is in the interactions between Bitterblue and her friends, servants and advisors, and her struggles with finding out the terrible secrets of the past, and what her father made people do, and trying to work out how to address these now. Should crimes committed under Leck’s domination be forgotten and forgiven, or should they be remembered and the victims given voices?
There are some problems with the book, though. I never entirely believed in Bitterblue’s attraction to Saf, though I did like the way Cashore followed up his discovery of her real identity. And the main problem is the eight year gap between Bitterblue becoming queen and her starting to become curious about her realm; the way it’s written makes it seem in that those eight years nothing happened: that the characters existed in a vacuum. There’s no sense of why Bitterblue is suddenly now waking up to what’s being done and what had been done; why Po, for example, has been able for eight years to deceive people, even his closest family, about his blindness, and is only now just telling people about it; his work and Katsa’s seems almost to follow on, without a gap, from what they had been doing in Graceling. I can’t see how, in that time, more hasn’t been done.
I was able to ignore this disconnect, in the main, because Cashore does a great job in presenting the characters: Bitterblue in particular is uncertain, brave, loyal, and able to lead, even if she worries that she’s not the rightful queen of Monsea. It was only from time to time, and afterwards, that I was really aware of that disconnect in time, and which takes the edge off my enjoyment of the book.
I’d say that it would make sense to have read Graceling first before tackling Bitterblue. Characters from Fire do appear at the end of the book, but Cashore gives sufficient context for them that I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the book (I haven’t). There is one thing from Fire, though, which I read briefly some time ago, and which has remained very vividly in my head since: the story of how Leck started his career of catastrophic manipulation. I believe this is a prologue to the main novel, and is creepy and terrifying in the subtle way Cashore tells it.
So, almost very good, and certainly worth reading, particularly if you liked Graceling.