Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: THE BITTER KINGDOM by Rae Carson

Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she's never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion-a champion to those who have hated her most. Riveting, surprising, and achingly romantic, Rae Carson has spun a bold and powerful conclusion to her extraordinary trilogy.
There are few things as a reader that are more nerve-wracking, more exciting, or more depressing than starting the very last book in a favorite series. I adored the first two books in Rae Carson's Fire & Thorns series. The Girl of Fire and Thorns surprised and delighted me with the numerous departures Ms. Carson took from the average fantasy format. The Crown of Embers deeply pleased me by shoring up the (very few) weaknesses I found in the first book and strengthening the story and characters I had come to cherish. Actually, my stock answer when questioned about the series is usually something along the lines of, "F&T was awesome, but CoE is perfection in a hardcover."

You understand, then, why I was so reluctant to read this book, despite begging and wishing and praying for it for months. What if, inexplicably, Ms. Carson bungled something? It didn't seem very plausible, but stranger things have happened. And even if TBK ended up being mind-blowingly good, then what? It's over. Done. Finito. No more adventures. No more Elisa. No more Hector.

I am here to report that my fears came true. The Bitter Kingdom was indeed awesome, and it is indeed over.
In honor of my original review of F&T and in order to keep myself from spilling squees of delight in every direction, below is my list of the ways Ms. Carson capped off her trilogy with a bang.

1. The characters. My word, can that woman write characters. All of our favorites are back and stronger than ever in this final installment. Elisa, our beloved warrior queen, is on the hunt to rescue Hector, her stalwart and hunky Captain of the Guard. With her are Mara, Belen, and possibly my favorite secondary character of the year, the Invierno ambassador Storm.

It's a foregone conclusion that I adore Elisa. We've watched her grow from the miserable, mewling princess in the beginning of F&T to the strong, take-charge queen willing to hunt down an entire Invierno troupe for the sake of her love. She's incredible in her strength and even more incredible in her continued weaknesses. I love that even after becoming queen, rescuing the country of multiple occasions, and even finding the mythical source of the earth's power, Elisa continues to have doubts. She's not perfect, and she never will be.

However, Ms. Carson really shines with her secondary characters. So many authors neglect their secondary characters, content to use them merely as tools to further the story. But in TBK, every secondary character is given a well-rounded life with needs and desires of their very own. Even the characters I couldn't understand on a personal level (those dang Invierno deciregi, for example) nevertheless felt very real and very present. In addition to familiar faces such as Mara, Belen, and Rosario, Ms. Carson introduces us to several new faces. My favorite by far of this fresh crop is Mula, a young half-Joyan, half-Invierno slave girl Elisa's group picks up on their hunt for Hector. Bright, loud, and completely uncontainable, Mula reminded me of young Ellie from Up.

That said, the breakout star of the entire book for me was Storm, a disgraced Invierno ambassador and Elisa's reluctant ally. I loved Storm without really knowing why in CoE, but our conflicted Invierno friend completely charmed me in this story. Torn between growing respect for Elisa and lingering feelings of loyalty for his home, Storm radiates infuriating Invierno snobbery even as he softens in peculiar ways toward his companions. He's like a prickly cat, one you can't help but cuddle and rub the wrong way just to see him squirm with distaste.

2. The romance. Yes, more romance, wheeeee! Elisa and Hector are still completely adorable together. There were a few instances of waffling as to whether Hector believed Elisa truly loved him, which was annoying. But all in all, swoons abounded. You all will love it, I promise. The best part, for me, is that while the romance was prominent and fantastic, Ms. Carson made sure to prove that Elisa could still handle business on her own. She didn't need Hector to be a strong woman, a clever warrior, or a good queen. But she did want him by her side because she loved him.

Oh, and did I mention several chapters are from Hector's point of view? ULTRA-SWOON!

3. The setting. This series has the best settings. The first book gave us a forest and a desert. The second gave us a voyage on the high seas and a creeptastic island. This book took us to the very edges of Elisa's kingdom, to the free villages where Inviernos and Joyans lived in peace, and beyond to the heart of the Invierno capital city. I love that the series refuses to be sedentary.

4. The themes. Once again, Ms. Carson is a master at continuing the themes of the past books. Throughout the book, Elisa continues to struggle with the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent to her position. In order to save her country and the people she loves, she has to sacrifice others. People die. Livelihoods are destroyed. The losses are necessary, but that doesn't mean that Elisa doesn't feel the weight of her responsibility. I like that she doesn't receive any easy answers.

Also, though Storm and the other Inviernos, Ms. Carson continues to play with the tension between truth and deception. While the Inviernos despise the Joyans for their willingness to lie, the Inviernos also are masters of deception due to their ability to lie by omission. I found it terribly fun to try to guess at what they were hiding.

There's also some talk about Elisa's looks but far less than in previous books. Still, one such discussions ended up in my favorite quote from the book, which you'll be able to read at the end of my review.

5. The history. Though a much smaller point than all the others, I loved learning more about the Inviernos' tangled history, especially as it pertains to the Joyans. I found it all completely fascinating, and - not to spoil anything - I've officially changed this series' genre in my headcanon. You all will love it (or at least be gleefully baffled by it), I promise.

6. The ending. Ms. Carson hits the perfect balance in her ending. We're given answers to some of the more pressing concerns of the series, but other ends are left dangling. I'm okay with that. If anything, it gives me hope that one day we may return to Joya d'Arena. The best part of the ending, in my opinion, is the full circle in Elisa's character. Way back in my review of F&T, I mentioned how much Elisa reminded me of Gen from The Thief, though she lacks some of Gen's essential swagger. Now, in Elisa's final chapter, she pulls off a master stroke that would have made the Gen of A Conspiracy of Kings proud.

The Bitter Kingdom is a lovely, satisfying ending to one of my favorite series of all time. I'm sad to leave Elisa, Hector, and the others, but I'm so grateful to have been a part of their adventure. Thank you, Ms. Carson, for giving us such wonderful stories. Perhaps one day we can return once more.

Favorite Non-Spoilery Quote(s):
"You look beautiful," Alodia says.

I startle at the compliment. Then I smile. "I'm beautiful to the one person who matters."

She nods. "Hector's mouth will drop open when he sees you."

"I hope so. But I meant me. I'm beautiful to me."
Points Added For: ALL THE THINGS, but especially everything I mention above. Also, Mula needs her own book now.

Points Subtracted For: Ending. :(

Good For Fans Of: The other Fire & Thorns books, thorny ethical dilemmas, amazing settings, romance.

Notes For Parents: Some language, death, making out, implied sex(!)

Note: I received an digital ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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