Review of BITTERBLUE by KRISTIN CASHORE
(review based on an advance reading copy)
The greatest strength of this book might double as its greatest weakness. Cashore's first two books, GRACELING and FIRE, focused on female protagonists absurdly powerful through magical gifts they never earned. By the premises alone, we have empowering, dynamic characters and clear, complex themes that condense to the paradox of gifts that are as much curses as blessings. BITTERBLUE, however, focuses on a "normal" woman. True, she's a queen with a terrifying past that led her to take the throne before puberty, but if we're fixated on magical normalcy (Is that an oxymoron?), then Bitterblue is of the non-gifted majority. Her personal strength - emotional, intellectual, and physical - must come from her character and effort alone. Greatest strength of the book - no contest - and I admire Cashore for branching out this way. Unfortunately, the end result is a somewhat unfocused story. Bitterblue never struck me as a remarkable or unique character and her battle remains rather abstract to the end, more about her inner conflict with doubt and a traumatic past than any external struggles. I liked the book throughout, but I kept waiting to love it and that never happened. When I finished, I almost thought I must be missing pages. Any resolution is...gentle. Not quite open ended, but leaning more that way than towards a tidy wrap-up.
Fans of GRACELING and FIRE will enjoy seeing characters they recognize weave in and out of the plot. I relished seeing Katsa and Po's romance through another character's eyes. Understandably, Bitterblue talks about how such a passionate, all consuming love sometimes makes those outside of the couple feel immensely lonely and unfulfilled. However, I still wish the FIRE and GRACELING worlds remained apart. While this novel reveals some fascinating connections between the two previous books and characters, there's a "tip of the iceberg" sense that makes the end feel more like the start of another book. (Perhaps intended?)
The romance element also distanced me from Bitterblue. I felt zero chemistry between her and the guy she likes. However, I did sense sharp electricity between her and a few other characters that she never even considers in that regard.
Leck has been the villain in every book. Even in BITTERBLUE, he haunts his daughter after his death. By now, I had grown bored of him. In some respects, he's a terrifying villain, but too purely evil to hold my interest or provoke worthy discussion. Then Cashore pulled the rug out from under me in BITTERBLUE. Much of the story follows Bitterblue's quest to understand what horrible cruelties her father did, why he did such things, and, most importantly, why some people seem so intent on locking away that part of their land's history, to the point of killing those who speak openly about Leck's reign. Leck started to bore me, because his cruelty defies rationale more complex than "he's insane," but when the big reveal comes around, this latest twist to Leck's sick games makes sense with horrifying logic.