The third novel in Kristin Cashore’s young adult Graceling series, Bitterblue is very like its predecessors in that it deals centrally with issues of abuse and coercive control. The eponymous Bitterblue is the daughter of the late King Leck of Monsea, a man who could control people’s minds and have them do his often megalomaniac bidding. As the new ruler of Monsea, and a victim of Leck’s cruelty in her own right, Bitterblue has to come to terms not only with what her father did to the country’s people, but also with her own power and privilege and the responsibilities they confer upon her. Her attempts to do so are complicated by her advisers, who all also suffered under Leck, and who are more interested in forgetting what he did to them, and made them do to others, than in confronting his crimes and providing restitution to Monsea’s people. Frustrated by their equivocation, Bitterblue decides to explore her capital city alone, dressed as a commoner, and meets a man called Sapphire with whom she strikes up a relationship of sorts. Saf tells her what life in the city is really like: the endemic illiteracy, the poor construction of many of its buildings, the people doing the work her government should be doing by illicitly returning the things Leck stole to their proper owners. How, given Leck’s past abuses, can Bitterblue do best by her people? And how can she repair the wrong she’s done to Saf by concealing her identity for so long?
It’s not necessarily a novel in which a whole lot happens, its concerns being mostly personal and psychological. Like a lot of YA fantasy, it focuses quite narrowly on its protagonist’s emotional state: the world and the characters around Bitterblue exist mainly to facilitate her self-actualisation. Her presentation is realistic in that she is as important in her narrative as we are important to ourselves: we only have access to her interiority in the novel in the same way that we only have access to our own interiority in real life. It’s therefore significant that Cashore manages to avoid the trap of suggesting that Bitterblue is the only important character in the novel: a key part of what Saf teaches her is about recognising the reality of other people, accepting that what is convenient for you may not be convenient for them, and handling power imbalances ethically and fairly.
Power has always been a key concern of the Graceling series, and here Cashore mixes the formula up a bit. Bitterblue is unlike the protagonists of the previous novels, Katsa and Fire, in that she has no magical power; her power comes from her social position. So whereas Katsa and Fire, broadly speaking, use their supernatural gifts to escape the coercive social power of others, Bitterblue has to learn to wield her social power responsibly, and to gain the goodwill and trust of those over who she has power. Both approaches are useful ones, I think, and it’s particularly notable that Katsa and Fire are specifically feminist protagonists whose stories act as correctives to traditional narratives about female characters in generic fantasy settings. But Bitterblue strikes me as the more nuanced and relevant text: Bitterblue’s experience is closer to what real teens experience as they become adults and start to learn that (at the risk of sounding flippant) other people are real too; and it approaches complex social questions that the earlier novels only really glance at. It is, for instance, the first novel in the series that’s interested in working-class concerns in a concrete way (as opposed to the general “think of the poor peasants” sentiment that pervades Graceling and Fire) – and as such I think challenges some of the class assumptions that we make when we’re reading this type of fantasy.
It is, in other words, a thoughtful, timely and interesting novel that addresses contemporary concerns about power, privilege and state reparations. It’s not perfect: in particular, I think its position on democracy as opposed to monarchy is incoherent, a problem that will become worse in the next book, Winterkeep; and the prose is distinctly workaday, lacking polish or charm. (I also found it difficult to reconcile Bitterblue’s fondness for modern-sounding sugary desserts with the sort-of-medieval setting: where are they getting all this chocolate from?) But, despite these flaws, I think it ultimately succeeds in what it’s trying to do, and asks some unusual questions about power structures in high fantasy along the way.