Sometimes I buy books and then don’t read them until months later, but not so with Bitterblue, which I’d very much looked forward to. Yet while I really enjoyed some aspects of it and would certainly recommend it to read, overall my expectations (admittedly pretty high) were slightly disappointed.
I thought it started well. Bitterblue, a character introduced in Cashore’s first novel Graceling, has grown up and is grappling with her role as Queen of Monsea. Her father Leck had the magical talent of making people do and believe what he wanted just by telling them so and used it to terrible effect (for the full story I recommend you read Graceling). Bitterblue and her mother managed to fight the mind fog sometimes, but still she’s struggling to get parts of her memory back. In an attempt to get to know her kingdom better, she sneaks out one night into the city and stumbles into a viper’s nest of questions. Finding answers to them and paying the price for it takes up most of the rest of the book.
Bitterblue is a very engaging heroine. Unlike the main characters of Cashore’s other two books, she has no outstanding magical abilities, which makes her more accessible. She has an orderly mind and likes Maths and displays an admirable drive to find the truth and do right by her people. However, the main focus of the novel is really on the plot with all its tortuous twists and very much driven by the events of the past – as she remarks at one point, nearly a decade after his death, Leck is still killing people. Fittingly, important themes of the book are puzzles, keys and ciphers and Cashore has even invented a beautiful whole new alphabet.
But while I enjoyed the many plot twists, I found too few engaging characters apart from Bitterblue (although I liked the tetchy librarian!). Some of the characters from the other books make brief cameos, but apart from Po they remain pale shades of their former selves, which I thought a shame. As for the love story, such a strong element in Cashore’s other novels, it’s a complete disappointment!
The worldbuilding seemed slightly weaker than usual. Bitterblue lives in a castle and runs a kingdom, yet there is not a single courtier in sight. And though she’s enormously wealthy, nobody ever seeks any favours or advancement. Also when you think of it, she might not even be the rightful queen. Her father usurped the throne and there might be some distant cousin of the former king with a better right to the throne (just think of the complicated succession debates during Tudor times).
Yet having said all that, the book is still a good read. Kristin Cashore’s style is very smooth and absolutely lovely to read and I enjoyed how she explored different themes such as the importance of memory or the question of guilt. Leck left an enormous mess behind and it’s very realistic that killing him is not the solution to all the kingdom’s problems.