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Announcing... Speculative Fiction 2012: The Year's Best Online Reviews & Commentary

New Releases: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

BitterblueKristin Cashore's Bitterblue (2012) is the third book in the Graceling trilogy.

[Editor's note: I've not read the first two, but a bit of post-read research helped piece it together. It looks like they're all fairly well-connected, each book featuring a teenage female protagonist with magic-cool powers saving their kingdoms. I suspect that more of the background to Bitterblue would make sense if I'd read those two, but it stands - surprisingly - very well on its own.]

Bitterblue is the Queen of Monsea. Her father, Leck, was an evil wizardy type, with the ability to control people's minds. Under his reign, Monsea was a dark and hideous place. But now that he's been overthrown [which apparently happened at some point in a previous book?], Bitterblue has returned from hiding to take the throne. Huzzah. Day saved, cue Ewok dance.

Except... it hasn't. Bitterblue is a teenager ruling a broken land. Her administration is composed of leftover bureaucrats from her father's reign, all of whom had a hand (unwillingly) in his tyranny. While most of her officials are pushing a policy of reconciliation - forgive, forget and move on - Bitterblue has a sneaking suspicion that it won't be that easy.

Tired of being isolated from her people, she slinks out of the palace one night (dressed as a boy, no less! Not exactly the newest plot twist in storyland, but eh, roll with it...) and meets the common folk. (The common folk, for the record, include a hot-headed young rebel boy, coincidentally Bitterblue's own age. Shock!) Bitterblue learns that things aren't all roses and song for the peasantry. They're not so keen on moving on - they'd like their lives back.

Bitterblue struggles against her own bureaucracy. Those that remember her father's cruelties can't - or won't - tell her about them. Worse yet, the written records seem to be disappearing, so she can't find any sort of objective truth from the period of his rule. This is a fantasy saga that takes place not in the Misty Mountains, but in the library - with Bitterblue and a cranky archivist trying to pick apart the mysteries of the recent past. Meanwhile, her hot-headed friends - more conventional fantasy heroes - are busy leading revolutions. Bitterblue can only wonder if she's next on the list.

As far the actual story goes, I could take it or leave it. Bitterblue is a little frustrating and I didn't find her a particularly compelling character. The book's overall theme is trust, which means a sizable portion of Bitterblue's time is spent wondering who she can talk to, what she can say, and whether or not everyone is lying to her. Her perpetual guilt is exhausting, as is her teenage, whirlwind romance. Bitterblue is also too long by half, with scenarios repeating themselves over and over again. And, with the exception of Bitterblue, most of the characters were completely undeveloped - relying, presumably, on knowledge from the previous volumes. The magical powers were also a little frustrating, especially a mind-reading friend who appeared and disappeared as needed.

That said, Ms. Cashore's book actually looks at the "what next?" - a hugely unexplored area of fantasy fiction. Sticking a sword in the evil wizard is the easy part of the quest, and, granted, that makes the 'fun' reading. Bitterblue has the hard part - trying to balance reparation and forgiveness, the future and the past.

Leck being an mind-controlling mage ostensibly simplifies things. The soldiers were, for the most part, "just following orders". But Ms. Cashore does not take the easy way out. Leck's pawns - even if they were unwilling - are still conscious of their actions under the evil king's reign. Bitterblue's guilt over being a fairly crappy queen is nothing compared to their guilt for the horrors they inflicted under Leck's rule.

Ms. Cashore also makes the hard - and, in my eyes, right - decisions in terms of the book's conflict. It would be easy to blame everything on Leck, to have the evil wizard still alive, and lurking in the corners. But this is a fantasy without a villain. Bitterblue's enemies are inertia, doubt, shame and secrecy. And as there's no single, physical enemy, there's no single, physical cure. Bitterblue can't save her kingdom by biting a magic apple, all she can do is start a long and grueling process of healing. 

This is not a book I particularly loved - I struggled with the characters, the world and quite a few of the sub-plots - but it is one I respect. Ms. Cashore covers the toughest, most rarely-addressed aspect of epic fantasy. What happens after the good guys win? She earns even more of my respect for ensuring that there are no easy answers, making Bitterblue a thoughtful and unusual fantasy.

Sidebar: Following last week's review of Scourge of the Betrayer, and Justin Landon's (extremely apt) comparison to T.C. McCarthy's Germline, I'm starting to piece together the influence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on American SF/F. Scourge and Germline both have similar themes - the observer's bias, perpetual, ill-understood war and the struggle of the individual (e.g. "I'm here, I don't agree with it, what do I do?"). Ms. Cashore's book fits into the same school, but with a different approach - the high fantasy of post-invasion reconstruction. I wonder if we'll be getting more books along this theme.