Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
Bitterblue continues the Graceling series, which also includes a book called Fire. I’ve really enjoyed all three of these books. Each of these books have a different protagonist, but in Bitterblue, the main characters from the other book make important appearances. I would recommend reading both Fire and Graceling before Bitterblue, but the order in which you read Fire and Graceling doesn’t matter much.
The world of these novels is full of political intrigue and magical powers. People with two different colored eyes are called “gracelings” and have various supernatural or unusual abilities: survival, mind-reading, memory, camouflage. In a neighboring kingdom, there are “monsters,” human and beast, with iridescent hair that attracts others and can influence them insidiously.
Bitterblue is the name of the fifteen-year-old Queen of Monsea, a kingdom recovering from years of tyranny and horrific abuse under her father, a sociopath who had mind-control powers. Much of the young queen’s time is spent masquerading as a commoner outside the castle, puzzling out codes, and uncovering a conspiracy to cover up what happened in Leck’s reign. There are several mysteries to solve, which lead to some good action scenes and plenty of suspense. The entire populace, especially the queen’s advisors and closest allies, has been under Leck’s spell for so long, that they no longer really want to wake up and acknowlege the horrors they saw and in some cases were forced to commit while under Leck’s control. It’s a great commentary on what happens when the government distorts the truth.
Bitterblue is a strong, positive character, a traumatized girl trying to do the right thing with more power than she knows how to wield. She’s a strong heroine who makes judicious decisions and smart deductions, who delegates her power and uses her allies and advisors well, who defends herself and her kingdom, who is fair and wise, but also kind, vulnerable, and emotionally open. She’s both believable and admirable, a combination that’s not always easy to pull off. Cashore seems to have done a skilfull balancing act in creating this character. She’s feminist because she’s a great example to girls of how a woman can be a great leader.
This sex-positive series really is unusual in YA lit. There is a frank discussion of birth control and a long-term committed couple who never want to marry. There is a gay couple presented sympathetically; their relationship is difficult because close-minded parents and rules of succession keep them apart. Bitterblue falls in love with a thief, and they have comforting sex that has no real negative emotional consequences but necessitates a bit of sneaking around. Their relationship is left at loose ends at the book’s conclusion; niether is willing to give up a chosen future for the other. That’s a really unusual ending for a YA romance. I’d be really interested to see what might happen if later books in the series bring these two characters back.