I was really looking forward to reading Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore after enjoying both Graceling and Fire and lucky me has amazing friends who buys books on my recommendation and then subsequently lends them to me. It’s a win-win situation. Bitterblue is one of my favourite characters from Graceling and I was eager to find out exactly what kind of young woman she transforms into after catching a tantalising glimpse of her and her convoluted family history in Cashore’s first novel.

It’s eight years after the events in Graceling and Bitterblue is now eighteen and queen of Monsea after the death of her father Leck signalling the end of 35 years of unimaginable cruelty and manipulation. Trying to rebuild and heal a kingdom that had been so sorely abused is no easy task especially given Leck’s legacy, for Leck was a Graceling with the ability to manipulate people’s minds to devastating effect, holding his people ransom to his increasingly insane needs. Neither Bitterblue nor her mother Ashen were spared and it is only Ashen’s sacrifice that made Bitterblue’s survival possible and paved the way for Leck’s defeat. As Bitterblue tries to grow into her role as Queen of Monsea she begins to question her understanding of Leck’s legacy, especially the lingering effect on her subjects. And so she starts to sneak out at night to see exactly how her kingdom is faring. And in doing so, she meets two thieves, Teddy and Saf, who will change her life forever. And as she becomes embroiled in what is actually happening in her city, she begins to realise that all is not well and that someone is trying to stop her finding out exactly what had gone on in her father’s reign. For most of his victims are either dead or have suppressed their memories and there are people who would prefer if these memories never surface.

Together with her cousins Katsa and Po and their comrades, Bitterblue must try and take control of her city and get to the bottom of what had gone on during Leck’s reign. As well as trying to become a worthy sovereign, she is also wrestling with her growing feelings for Saf, a Graceling with no love for royalty.

I really enjoyed reading Bitterblue and raced through it in almost a day. It’s pretty rare for me to read something for more than two hours at a time now so it felt refreshing. It was lovely to be reacquainted with both Katsa and Po, two characters I adore from Graceling and to see how the different strands of Cashore’s world come together in her third book, especially the idea of people having graces with different abilities. She uses this to tackle quite dark and complex topics such as prejudice, class structure and oppression, and even darker matters in the volume which she handles sensitively.

However, my main gripe with this book and it’s loose prequel, Fire, is that it is a little too simplistic considering the subject matter. And yes, I know it’s a YA book but if you are going to talk about horrific things (and many books do), keeping it too simple somehow defeats the purpose and lessens the impact and I felt this throughout both books. I certainly don’t think it’s an easy task and I think Cashore valiantly attempts to do her ideas justice even though it may not have been completely successful.

Part of the problem of keeping it too simple was also the dialogue. I know Bitterblue is young and trying to become an adult and she is unsure of her true worth in being Queen. Cashore portrays this brilliantly, and yet when it comes to her conversations with Saf, it was often whiney and soppy. As were Katsa and Po’s playful flirting. Ok, I’m just being grumpy here and obviously have forgotten what it’s like to be a teenager. These are personal gripes and don’t in fact get too much in the way of enjoying the story.

Cashore’s strength lies in her world building; the idea of Gracelings and the terrifyingly beautiful monsters of Dell are unique and wonderful. And although at one point I kept thinking X-men, her vivid descriptions captured the essence of the world she has created. I also particularly enjoyed the way she tied up the threads that ran through all three books.

I do hope Cashore continues to write about this world which she has created. She’s only just scratched the surface and I’m sure there are more fascinating tales to be told.

Wow, what a surprise. Can I just say, I loved, loved, loved this book. Graceling has been prominent in a lot of sff blogs and review sites for a while now and has garnered lavish praise. But it didn’t really tickle my fancy until I saw it at my local library and decided, why not? Let’s give it a try. And boy am I glad I did. From the first sentence to the last, Graceling hooked me by its beautiful sentences and incredible story. Kristin Cashore is an amazing writer, and the world she has created is inspired. The world of the Seven Kingdoms itself may be familiar to readers of fantasy, but the graces which bless/inflict some of the characters is a really interesting concept. This is a clever twist on superhero powers and Cashore uses this to explore feelings of alienation, belonging, power, greed and love.

The strength of Graceling lies in the characters, especially the two main protagonists who you will fall in love with as the story progresses. Katsa and Po first meet in a dramatic rescue of Po’s grandfather who was kidnapped by an unknown enemy. What makes this encounter special is that both Katsa and Po are graced with eyes of two different colours and very special gifts. But these graces are not always welcome: Katsa’s grace is killing and she has been working for her uncle, King Randa, as his personal enforcer, dishing out pain and punishment to keep his law. She is ashamed of who she is and wishes somehow that she could change. Po is graced with fighting but has a secret to keep even from his own family. And in a world where peace is an ever fragile thing, there is one person who is drunk on power and wants its all. Katso and Po must find who tried to kidnap his grandfather and prevent the world falling into the hands of their enemy.

Cashore’s novel is deliciously twisted and she strikes a fine balance between good and evil. I liked Katsa who is a feisty, strong and yet vulnerable young woman who knows what she does and doesn’t want and who understands the pain of alienation. She lives in a man’s world and the only reason she can move about it freely is her royal stature and her strength. Cashore has created a heroine who is a better fighter than the men around her, yet I found her extremely feminine and compassionate. However she doesn’t use her femininity to fight, she fights the men on their terms. Katsa knows who she is and doesn’t try to be anyone else. She struggles with her identity and comes out of this struggle stronger and more self assured. And in the process, she finds love and is able to open herself to another person. This is something that all of us go through and Cashore writes about it beautifully.

I, for one, cannot wait to read Cashore’s next book Fire which has just been published this year.

This is my first offering for the Women Unbound Challenge.