Kristin Cashore

Graceling, book 3

Gollancz (May 2012)

ISBN: 9780575097186

Reviewed by Tehani Wessely

Taking up a number of years after the events of Graceling, Bitterblue follows the passage of the title character, Queen Bitterblue, as she learns how to heal her broken country. Readers of the series will remember Bitterblue from the story told in Graceling, and the events that occurred some decades earlier in the “sequel/prequel” Fire are also important to the story told here. That said, Bitterblue is one of that most rare of fantasy novels that can stand in isolation, despite being a significant part of an overarching story.

In Bitterblue, the Queen, just eighteen and surrounded by old men who have been telling her for the past eight years how to run her damaged country, starts to realise there is a lot more she needs to know about her palace, her people, and her nation. Bitterblue begins to sneak out into the city at night, trying to learn more about the secrets being kept from her. She soon meets two thieves who are more than what they first appear, and gradually Bitterblue’s world and knowledge expand and she learns to understand her past, and the legacy left to her by her father, the king.

Cashore is a gifted storyteller – her ability to maintain narrative engagement over several hundred pages, combined with her talent for writing gloriously flawed and believable characters whose behaviours and growth are plausible and wholly immersive, makes reading her work both easy and infinitely pleasurable. It was truly difficult to put the book down, despite its bulk! The character of Bitterblue is heartbreaking and astounding by turns. Dealing with immense power that she understands so poorly, but underpinned by a fragile strength of spirit and intelligence, the beginning of her journey from sheltered queen to competent ruler is beautifully drawn. The secondary characters loom large and small in the background, fleshed out in their own right and with a strong sense of person and place, completing the tapestry Cashore has built.

I have read both Graceling and Fire and while this book is somewhat longer than either of the first two, the elements which made them such fantastic reads are still present. It is particularly interesting to note that all three books have young women as protagonists, surrounded by male and female characters and with interesting gender and sexuality comments presented.

As I noted previously, Bitterblue could be read in isolation from the first two books, which themselves are able to be read individually – however, for the best reading experience, reading in publication (not chronological) order, would provide the best journey, with the characters and narrative building solidly across the three books.

I highly recommend this series, and this book, to anyone looking for a character driven fantasy, particularly if you are interested in the examination of a story that has at its heart young female characters learning how to deal with life and the inheritance of power sullied by madness.