Over the last few days I’ve spent some time with Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm novels. I had previously read both Graceling and Fire but never managed to get to the third book, Bitterblue. I reread the first two novels and finally plowed through the third. Now, I can finally blog about them.
First up, Graceling.
Katsa lives in the seven kingdoms, a niece to the king of the Middluns, and she is a Graceling. Gracelings are known by their eyes – which are two different colors. Every Graceling has a Grace – an ability that transcends both training and talent. Katsa’s Grace is killing and she works as the king’s bully. Graceling is the story of how Katsa frees herself from the chains of the king’s employment, learns the true nature of her Grace, and – along the way – falls in love.
This book is amazing. I devoured it the first time. I devoured it the second time. You want a book with a strong female character? THIS IS ONE. These books are technically YA but they don’t shy away from sex in the same way that most YA does. Yes, there is a love story here but Katsa is not a character who simply stops being a strong person because she falls in love. Instead, SHE decides what it means for her to love someone, what form that relationship should take, and how she wants to live her life.
This is a theme that runs throughout Cashore’s books. Women are strong. Women are capable. Women can CHOOSE how they want to live and who they want to love and what they do with their lives. This is true not just of her main characters but many of her ancillary characters as well.
What I find most gratifying about it is that Cashore doesn’t bash these themes at you with a jackhammer. They’re a simple fact of the world she built. It just is. The main characters may be slightly different than the average bear but they are not thought strange or unwomanly or off their rockers for being who they are. She doesn’t chose the trope of “women are like this, but my character is different.”
The next book is Fire.
Fire lives in The Dells. She is what’s known as a monster. She is marked as one by her hair, her beauty, and her powers of thought manipulation. She is the last living human monster and her life is dangerous and difficult. Fire is the story of how Fire finds a place for herself in a world that largely despises her. It is also the origin story for a character in Graceling.
Again, Fire is her own person, choosing to live her life in whatever way she sees fit, no matter the number of men who tell her not to. As the story moves, she learns how she believes her powers should be used and she takes action to use them in justifiable ways. The same themes that permeate Graceling are the underpinning of Fire but with a new cast of characters and a very different story.
I also devoured Fire both times that I read it. It may be my favorite book of the three.
Bitterblue is the Queen of Monsea, one of the seven kingdoms. She is the daughter of the psychopathic King Leck and her kingdom is still recovering from the ravages of 35 years of King Leck’s rule. Bitterblue is young and sheltered, not truly allowed to see what her kingdom holds, so she begins to sneak out of her castle at night to learn about her people and the history of her father’s reign. Bitterblue is this story; it is the story of how Leck warped a nation and how Bitterblue must fix it.
I liked this book. I did. But it is the weakest of the three. A friend of mine on twitter called this book, “A slow burn with payoff.” She was right. It is a slow burn. And there is payoff. But it was almost hard to get through. The plot didn’t really start picking up until the last third of the book – which was very different from Graceling and Fire. Cashore could have easily dispensed with 200 pages of text and lost nothing of the plot.
Having only read Bitterblue once, it may improve upon rereading, as many of the threads that took forever to come together may be easier to take when one knows what’s coming. In that sense, Cashore does a good job of conveying Bitterblue’s own confusion – because the reader is pretty confused as well, for long stretches of the book.
This book is also the darkest of the three. There is torture, rape, murder, and suicide in Bitterblue. It is the least YA of the three. I don’t know that I would necessarily keep my kid from reading the book but I’d want them to be a bit older before they do.
While I have my problems with the pacing of the book, the story is good and the themes that ran through the first two novels are also present here. It was a satisfying way to tie all the books together. They are not a trilogy in the traditional sense but they are companions to one another, each building on the last. As much as Bitterblue took a good while to get moving, it is still a necessary piece of the whole. I don’t think the series would be complete without it.
If you’re looking for good YA fiction, something with strong characters, strong women, and good stories, check these out. Both Graceling and Fire can stand alone – they are full and complete stories in and of themselves. Bitterblue is much less so. Without reading the first two, Bitterblue would make no sense at all. So, if you’re hesitant about having a younger reader try these books, it’s possible to hold off on Bitterblue without leaving the story hanging off a precipice.