Kristin Cashore has captured intelligent female fantasy readers with her books Graceling, Fire, and now Bitterblue, where we pick up with the beleaguered daughter of Ashen as she is growing into being queen.  I hesitate to assert these themes, but if Graceling is about learning about loving connection despite fear and Fire is about discerning the different flavors of love and admiration that "monstrous" attraction can evoke, then Bitterblue is about learning to compassionately encompass a kingdom.  In other words, Bitterblue is about power.

And those who are captivated by court drama will enjoy this immensely, although the romantic flair that characterized Graceling and Fire is significantly toned-down here.  Bitterblue is struggling to reclaim her kingdom--and even to understand it--since the 35-year reign of her father King Leck.  Leck's grace was the ability to fog others' minds, take them over, and force them to do his bidding without their understanding that it was, in fact, his bidding.  The scars of his sadistic acts linger, both in the people and animals subject to his abuse as well as in those who were forced to do his bidding.  It takes many pages of complications before Bitterblue understands that her current advisors, who were her father's men, are not only complicit in a series of complex cover-ups--from literacy to finances--but are doing so in great part because of how Leck twisted them.  All four men were promising young healers, and all were forced to become torturers.

As Bitterblue finds her way, there's this glorious passage of what I think of as her vision of an encompassing compassion, which will allow her to become the just ruler she strives to be.  The passage starts with her "raw and crying with grief":

Then something began to change in the room.  None of the feelings changed, but Bitterblue encompassed them somehow.  She was larger than the feelings, she held the feelings in an embrace, and murmured kindnesses to them and comforted them.  She was the room. The room was alive, the gold of the walls glowed with life, the scarlet and gold starts of the ceiling were real.  She was bitgger than the room; she was the corridor and the sitting room and Helda's rooms.  Helda was there, tired and worried and feelings some arthritis in her knitting hands, and Bitterblue embraced her., Bitterblue comforted her too, and eased the pain in her hands.  And grew.  She was the outer corridors [...]. She was the offices and the tower and she embraced all the men who were broken and frightened and alone. [...]  And to embrace her friends among them, feel the complications of their feelings for each other [...].  

She saw herself, tiny, fallen, crying and broken on the bridge.  She could feel every person in the castle, every person in the city.  she could hold every on eof them in her arms; comfort every one.  
She was enormous, and electric with feeling, and wise.  She reached down 
to the tiny person on the bridge and embraced that girl's broken heart. (p. 512-513)

Recovery from 35 years of trauma will not come easily to the kingdom.  As Bitterblue says:  "My kingdom's challenge is to balance knowing with healing." (p. 537) Which is the way with any recovery from horror.

I did have a few critiques of the book.  The relationship with Saf is much flatter than Cashore's other romantic forays in previous books, and perhaps that is indicative of the focus here on coming into power as a leader rather than coming to know oneself.  Still, Saf can be downright annoying, and there's something odd about the ways that Bitterblue can see the flaws in her own kingdom increasingly clearly while remaining enamored of "bad boy" Saf, whose friends are a real boon but whose own contributions to her coming into power are neutral or mildly detracting.  I suppose you could argue that Saf is there to show Bitterblue's rounded strength, the strength not to fall in love with a scalawag and a thief while, nonetheless, making love to him.  And, let's face it, if he really does resemble Prince Po, then that is strength indeed.

Overall, this is another outstanding book, and fans of the first two will deeply appreciate all the strands that come together from those narratives here (though I wouldn't recommend reading it separately).  By the end, we see Katsa and Fire in the same room with Bitterblue, who is poised to rule a kingdom in a new world of peaceful neighbors recently revealed.  A powerful trio of women indeed.

One other great quote:
"Every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself." (p. 375)

Plus, blog bonus:  Share it maybe!

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