Review: Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Publication Date: May 1st, 2012
Format: ARC, 545 pages
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars
Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck’s reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle—disguised and alone—to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past.
Two thieves, who only 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, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart.

“In a mad world, only the mad are sane.” 
                                                                         – Akira Kurosawa

The story began eight years after Graceling; the Lady Queen (Bitterblue) is floundering but doing her best to rule a kingdom in disarray. Monsea is in need of rebuilding, healing and forgetting. There were many hidden truths about Leck’s reign of torture and mind control that she needed to know, that her people needed to remember. But there were forces in the works that were just as determined to suppress them. She set out to learn everything there was to learn about a kingdom she knew so little of. Unbeknownst to her advisers, she snuck out at nights dressed as a boy if only to see what was beyond her towers. Along the way she met a couple of truth seekers, moonlighting as thieves who slowly revealed that the atrocities of the dead king hasn’t ended. Her advisers advocated to move from the past, but Bitterblue couldn’t ignore the strange occurrences in her kingdom. From murdered truth-seekers, suicidal advisers, printing shop arsons and missing royal guards, Bitterblue was resolute to find who was behind it all. It seems someone is determined to hide the past. And as she slowly uncovers the truths she seeks, the list of her trusted people grows shorter.

I am torn; utterly, completely torn.

I expected too much and was given so little of everything I’d hoped this book would be.  And yet, I can’t deny that even if it was a disappointment in some aspects, Kristin Cashore still managed to awe, shock, and inspire. As soon as I saw this book in my mailbox, I was eager to start right away. The volume alone had me chomping at the bits. Why shouldn’t I be? It’s a good character of a sweeping fantasy novel, isn’t it? Barring the possibility that Kristin filled its pages with inconsequential babble, I was ready to forsake everything, ignore everyone until the whole thing was read. But my bubble of excitement burst as I got deeper into the book despite the chilling prologue that gave so much promise.

I could say that this book could’ve used a whole lot of trimming but I’d be lying. Every peeled layer, every single disturbing revelation, and every single treachery Bitterblue discovered were necessary, I thought, to what Ms. Cashore was trying to achieve here. Among other things, this book is about Bitterblue and what kind of person she’d become – who she was and how deep of an impact of having a demented pyscho for a father would have on someone like her. Granted that it was intelligently written and very generous with information, but the fact of the matter is, this book lacked the pulse-racing adventures of Graceling and Fire. Other than the spectacular bridges that Leck had built and the hidden doorways which led to more secret passages, the world building was nothing special – a prototype based on this genre. 

Disappointments aside, I think that Ms. Cashore did her best to make this novel as easy to digest as possible. But for simple readers like me, I’m ashamed to admit that I bypassed talks of ciphers and often wasn’t able to follow the intricate webs of lies and betrayals plaguing Bitterblue’s kingdom. While I can appreciate the complications of a good mystery in a fantasy novel (see Froi of the Exiles), I had a difficult time enjoying this element of Bitterblue. It was convoluted and much too…exhausting for this reader.
The legacy of Leck’s reign was that it was difficult to decipher what was the truth and what was made up. His presence was still palpable even though he was dead. It seemed like her people was still under his fog. Kristin wrote this so well that I couldn’t separate myself from the actual truth that he was dead. In the same token, Bitterblue’s confusion about the amount of crazies in her kingdom drove me…well, just as crazy. I’m not sure if it was lack of organization or she meant to leave her readers in the same crazy spell as I’d imagined Monsea’s people would’ve been under Leck’s ruling.  All I can say is, I had a hard time of it.
The challenge that I face while writing this review stems from the fact that while Bitterblue was written incredibly, amazingly, predictably well, I can’t overlook the fact it wasn’t the epic fantasy that I’ve been expecting. And while I’m not an expert judge on what a good fantasy novel should be, I, however, have my own version of it. I need swordfights, men on horses, romance and conquering worlds unknown. Yes, Bitterblue have some of those but it was on the mild side bordering on non-existent. I was even more disappointed for the lack of romance. I just needed more.

Am I being generous for the four star rating? Perhaps. Call me out on being an inconsistent book rate-r, but I can’t discredit Bitterblue for its complexities and the writer’s unapologetic writing. I admit that giving this such a rating is a contradiction of my policies but heck, despite the challenges I faced finishing this book, I am still in awe of Ms. Cashore’s talents.

VERDICT: Bitterblue was a difficult read – in more ways than one. Be forewarned that Leck’s crimes and madness were described vividly though not explicitly. My take on Bitterblue? It was intense, powerful, challenging and most importantly, disturbing. 

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