Tuesday 28 July 2020

#CBR12 Book 47: "Bitterblue" by Kristin Cashore

Page count: 576 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 33 mins
Rating: 3 stars

#CBR12 Bingo: UnCannon (YA fantasy, written by a woman, about dark-skinned heroine, with several queer characters as supporting cast)

Official book description: 
Eight years have passed since the young Princess Bitterblue, and her country were saved from the vicious King Leck. Now Bitterblue is the queen of Monsea, and her land is at peace.

But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisers, who have run the country on her behalf since Leck's death, believe in a forward-thinking plan: to pardon all of those who committed terrible acts during Leck's reign, and to forget every dark event that ever happened. Monsea's past has become shrouded in mystery, and it's only when Bitterblue begins sneaking out of her castle - curious, disguised and alone - to walk the streets of her own city, that she begins to realise the truth. Her kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year long spell of a madman, and now their only chance to move forward is to revisit the past.

Whatever that past holds.

Two thieves, who have sworn only to steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck's reign. And one of them, who possesses an unidentified Grace, may also hold a key to her heart . . .

This book, the eagerly awaited follow-up to Graceling and Fire, came out in 2012, three years after the release of Fire. Now, in some book circles, like those of us who are STILL waiting (albeit a lot less patiently and now just sort of sadly resignedly) for books from authors like George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss or Diana Gabaldon, a mere three years is nothing, but it's still long wait between books. This means that when this book finally came out, I'd sort of moved on from Cashore's universe and was busy with other things (there's always so many more out there to distract me). I wasn't really expecting it to stay on my TBR list for eight years, but here we are. I think that if I'd read it upon release, my disappointment would have been all the greater. I loved the first two books in the series, and Bitterblue was a very interesting character when she was introduced, so having a whole book centred around her seemed promising. 

Sadly, while it was lovely to see young princess Bitterblue all grown up (although still young) and now a queen, determined to be the best ruler possible to her subjects, the book as a whole was a bit of a disappointment, and I'm pretty sure that if I'd read this as it just came out, the disappointment would have been all the greater. The book is simply far too long, and the plot takes ages to get anywhere and there are several sections where it feels like nothing is happening. If the book had been a more standard length, of 350-400 pages, with the story stream-lined a bit more, I think it would have been a much better book.

There is absolutely a lot of things to like about the book. Cashore is good at creating memorable characters and an interesting atmosphere. The subject matter that this book deals with, grief and PTSD, for an entire country even, is unusual. Bitterblue is a great heroine. She's lived a sheltered life, so is inexperienced in so many areas, but really works to learn and develop. She wants to be the best queen she can possibly be to her subjects and she wants more control of her life, only to discover that most of the people who she is meant to rely on and trust keep lying to her at every turn. The long and utterly terrifying reign of her father has left so many people devastated both mentally and physically, and there are a lot of people in her kingdom and on her council who would prefer it if the past was left entirely forgotten and unexplored.

Another high point of the novel is the inter-personal relationships, between friends and family members. Bitterblue feels rather lonely and longs for connection and affection, and sees how happy other people are with their families and loved ones. She is an orphan without siblings, whose awful tyrant of a father murdered her mother right in front of her when she was a child. As Bitterblue goes rebellious and starts sneaking out of the palace at night, befriending actual commoners and regular people, she learns so much about the horrors that her father inflicted on people, and as she investigates further, she comes to realise that his atrocities were truly shocking, and there are good reasons why the surviving members of his court would want to just forget about all the things that happened and just move on without further delving into it.

Speaking of the atrocities committed by king Leck, they are manifold and as the book uncovers them, truly horrifying. The fact that he literally possessed a kind of mind control meant that he didn't even need to do all the terrorising himself, he could (and did) get others to do it for him, leaving survivors of his reign with a number of physical and emotional scars. I was surprised at just how graphic and detailed the descriptions of his various misdeeds were, in a book aimed at young adult readers. 

While Bitterblue sneaks out and starts exploring her own capital city, she befriends two young men, who turn out to be thieves. However, they only steal back things that king Leck or people influenced by him already stole from other people, trying to reunite the former owners with their lost possessions. Sadly, in a lot of cases, the stolen items are children or other family members, now lost forever because of Leck's cruel experiments and psychotic games. While I'm very glad to see the sex positivity of the previous books continued, where a young woman can take control of her own desires and take a lover without there being anyone shaming her for it, I didn't really like the romance sub-plot between Bitterblue and the Lienid former sailor, Saf, all that much (mainly because he was a bit too cagey and also judgy of her). I much preferred the hints that in the future there may be something between Bitterblue and Giddon, Katsa and Po's friend and co-conspirator. 

I've seen rumours that Cashore is writing another book set in her Graceling universe, set to be released in the next year. I hope it's more tightly plotted and edited than this one was, and hopefully focuses on slightly less gruesome topics for most of it. 

Judging a book by its cover: The American edition of this book has three keys on the cover, which is suitable, because keys, both literal and figurative (used in code-breaking) play an important part in the story. This UK edition has another female cover model in a bit of an action-heroey pose, which seems a bit out of character for Bitterblue. The hooded cloak is absolutely fitting, as is the dagger (she's been trained in self-defense by Katsa for years), but there's something about the pose that still seems too aggressive and brash for our heroine.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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