Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: BITTERBLUE by Kristin Cashore

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.
I know others have said that that you don't need to read Graceling and Fire before reading this book, and it's true. Cashore does an admirable job of making sure all three books can stand alone. However, I may throw around spoilers for the first two books (not Bitterblue, I promise) with breathtakingly reckless abandon, so I suggest that all Cashore newbies stay above the jump-break until you've been able to read the first two books. Okay?

Now that that business is taken care of... This book. Oh my gosh, this book. I was so justified for making it my first Wishlist Wednesday post. I scarfed down all 500+ pages in less than three days (which prompted this post on book binges). I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Cashore's world. How much I loved Bitterblue. How much I despised Leck.

Bitterblue has grown up. She's eighteen now, queen and commander of Monsea. Only, as happens with most royalty, her power is curtailed. Kept high in a tower and drowned in floods of paperwork by her well-meaning advisors, men she has trusted from childhood, Bitterblue knows very little about her country or even herself.

Prompted by her curiosity, she begins to wake up, to notice things she hasn't before. Why is the east side of the city in shambles but freshly painted? Why can't she remember things from her childhood? What did Leck do in his secret rooms? Why are there strange yet beautifully life-like sculptures all over the castle? Why is her palace filled with impractical glass ceilings and courtyards that flood when it rains?

Add to that more problems, such as Bitterblue's penchant for running into two men, one of whom is Graced and exceedingly reckless and has a penchant for inexplicably stealing gargoyles from her palace. Oh, and her friends in the Council keep overthrowing neighboring monarchies and they're using her palace as a base, which is a little... uncomfortable. Also, she's pretty sure her four advisors, men she trusts absolutely, are hiding something from her. Or at least one of them is, because there are pieces she just can't fit together, and her citizens keep turning up dead.

There are so many questions in this book that it made my head ache, but they were utterly vital questions to Bitterblue and therefore to us. The questions range from seemingly innocuous to critically important in nature, but all (to me) were tinged with an ominous foreboding. They all led back to Leck - creepy, psychopathic, demented, charming Leck. Though by the start of the book Leck had been dead for eight years, he was so very alive on every page.

Everything you've read about this book being darker, more mature, more intense... so totally true. I'm going to come out and say it right now - this is NOT a book I would freely recommend to just anyone.

Leck permeates every fiber and the book revolves around Bitterblue discovering the past - her past, her country's past, her people's past. Boy, is it a messed up past. There are atrocities there that, while not described in graphic detail, still made me squirm and flinch.

This is not a fun book.

Don't get me wrong, there are fun moments. Bitterblue isn't completely alone. She has her two thief friends, Teddy and Saf, and the Council is in Monsea for much of her adventure. I'd forgotten how much I adored Katsa and Po until they were suddenly in Monsea, squabbling and kissing and loving like an old married couple. I even developed a new fondness for stuffy old Giddon. Oh, and Cashore brings in a new character names Death (supposedly pronounced "Deeth") who absolutely rocks my socks. Librarians rule!

But no one can escape tragedy in this book. Po continues to struggle with the loss of his sight and the terrible burden of his Grace. Katsa balances her worries for Bitterblue and her terror over what might happen if Po is found out. And everyone else goes through a nausea-inducing dive into the past with Bitterblue that threatens to tear the entire country apart at the seams.

This book hurt my head. It really did. Anyone who's read Tamora Pierce's Provost's Dog Trilogy (known to many as the Beka Cooper Series) knows what I'm talking about. There are so many buried leads, so many dead ends, so many frustrating turns that I felt like I was lost in Leck's maze. But it was worth it, horrific as the truth was in the end. I needed to know, just as Bitterblue needed to know, and it was a relief to know that the truth was so horrible that it warranted all of the elaborate measures that went into trying to destroy it.

I think, in the end, the most potent aspect of the entire tragedy was that, except for one dead and reviled king, there was no cackling bad guy. Other than Leck, there were only two people in the book that I truly and deeply despised, and that was because they were easy to hate. They were selfish and evil just because they could be. Anyone else had a reason. Everyone had the potential to be both villain and victim, which is frightening to the extreme.

So if you're up for that kind of ride - and I mean really, really up for it - then pick up Bitterblue. But I won't blame you if you don't.

Points Added For: Masterful writing, Bitterblue's transformation from troubled girl to a queen who gets stuff done, Giddon (he's lovable now), Death (my favorite character by far), the malevolent presence of Leck, some really awesome new Graces (Hava? The bomb!), twists galore (major and minor), PAGE 500!!!! Oh my gosh, pg. 500 made me so happy.

Points Subtracted For: A romance that I was rooting against (though maybe that's what Cashore wished all along...), a minor resolution regarding a certain bad guy that made me sad, Danzhol's Grace (nightmare fodder for a year there, people), making me depressed.

Good For Fans Of: Tamora Pierce (particularly The Provost's Dog Trilogy), the Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers. [Note: All three are in my can't-live-without list. Just saying.]

Notes For Parents: Some language and adult themes, including torture, rape, murder, mind control, experiments of the Josef Mengele kind, suicide, PTSD. Also, fade-to-black sex (nothing graphic; see previous treatment in Graceling) and multiple homosexual relationships, some more pointed than others. Oh, and drinking. There's drinking, too (although I think the adult themes might be of greater concern, y'know?)

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