In the castle belonging to Bitterblue, the queen of Monsea and the heroine of Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue, there is a statue in the library of "a child, five or six, perhaps, whose skirts were metamorphosing into rows of brick, for the child was turning into a castle" (p. 163). The child is a young Bitterblue, and Cashore's novel—the third in a sequence that began with Graceling (2008) and Fire (2009)—is essentially the story of an eighteen-year-old Bitterblue's metamorphosis into that castle, as she fully takes on and strives to understand the role of queen.
Even with her royal blood, Bitterblue is the most ordinary of Cashore's heroines. Bitterblue has no Grace for survival, unlike the heroine of Graceling, and she cannot sense or affect others' minds, like the heroine of Fire. But of the three, she has perhaps the most significant problem: she has inherited a kingdom still deeply troubled by the actions of her father, Leck, who ruled by torture and whose Grace allowed him to control the minds of his people and his own family members. Bitterblue's task is to find a path to healing for her people and herself.
There are many obstacles in her way at the start of the book. Bitterblue's own advisers, who have been part of the Monsean administration since Leck's time, want to forget the evil Leck did and propel the kingdom forward. They overload Bitterblue with busywork, so as to leave her no time to ask her advisers or her people questions about the past. But Bitterblue experienced Leck's reign for herself, and the paperwork cannot keep her from the personal questions that trouble her: "How was forgetting possible? Could she forget her own father? Could she forget that her father had murdered her mother? How could she forget the rape of her own mind?" (p. 19).
Bitterblue's quest for answers takes a teenage turn: she steals a disguise from a castle servant and sneaks out into her capital city late at night. There she finds the story rooms, taverns scattered around the city where people tell stories of Leck's time. In the story rooms she meets Sapphire, a Graceling who does not know his Grace, and his friend Teddy, an aspiring dictionary writer. They begin to open Bitterblue's eyes to the ways her people are processing the horrors of Leck's time—by storytelling, and by stealing back the objects Leck stole and returning them to their original owners. While with them, Bitterblue also sees firsthand that some of her subjects share her advisers' wish to suppress memories and stories of the past, only increasing Bitterblue's determination to question.
And Bitterblue leaves no question unasked, whether it touches on queenship or her personal life. She begins to learn more about her father's actions, and she observes their lasting effects on her own advisers—her father's evils are clear. But what about her own failings as a monarch? Has she let her people down with her administration's forward-looking policies?
A monarch was responsible for the welfare of the people he ruled. If he hurt them deliberately, he should lose the privilege of sovereignty. But what of the monarch who hurt people, but not deliberately? Hurt them by not helping them. Not fixing their buildings. Not returning their losses. Not standing beside them as they grieved for their children. Not hesitating to send the mad or the troubled to be executed. (p. 162)
And then, once her identity as queen is revealed to Sapphire, Bitterblue wonders what her privileged position as queen means for her friendships. Saf tells Bitterblue she doesn't realize the power she has: "I don't think you realize how big it is," Saf says, "or how it maroons me" (p. 263). Bitterblue dismisses him, but she can't stop thinking about his words:
Somewhat uncomfortable now, Bitterblue returned to her mother's chest, sat down, and forced herself to touch the edges of the question of just how, exactly, she had marooned Saf. What if the situation were reversed? What if she were the commoner and it had turned out that Saf was the king? Would she have been left marooned?
It was nearly impossible for her to conceive of such a situation. In fact, it was flatly absurd. But then she began to wonder if her inability even to imagine it had to do with her being too high to see that low, as Saf had said. (p. 271)
Much of Bitterblue's appeal stems from her thoughtfulness, the clear gaze she turns on herself and everything around her. That same thoughtfulness is evident in Cashore's approach to the book at large. She handles Bitterblue's relationship with Saf truthfully and realistically ("Astonishing, how much thought could be generated about nothing. Heat came upon her at the most inconvenient moments, so that she was certain everybody who looked into her eyes knew exactly what she was thinking about" (p. 151)). And while Bitterblue and Saf clearly care about each other, Bitterblue, at least, never seems to expect that the relationship will last forever, which I found refreshing.
Cashore, as she explains in the book's acknowledgements, also rectifies one problem with Graceling. Po, a major character in that novel who reappears in Bitterblue, became blind during Graceling. But his own Grace for mind reading expanded so that his blindness was essentially cured. In Bitterblue, Cashore takes care to explain that Po hasn't actually fallen victim to the magical cure trope. Graced or not, he can't distinguish different colors, he must write with graphite rather than ink, and "he used a small set of movable wooden letters as a reference to help him keep his own ciphers straight in his mind" (p. 21). When he falls ill, Po's Grace distorts with his fever.
In Bitterblue, the strongest of her books so far, Cashore adds layers of complexity and darkness to the stories of Bitterblue and the characters who reappear from her earlier books. But there is a gentleness to the storytelling, even in the face of all the traumas in the characters' pasts, that leaves the reader feeling that all will be well.
Sara Polsky (http://www.sarapolsky.com) is a writer living in New York City. Her first novel, This Is How I Find Her, will be published by Albert Whitman in fall 2013.