Cover of Bitterblue: 3 ornate keys on a watercolor blue background

About the Book

Title: Bitterblue (Graceling Realm #3)
Published: 2012

Cover Story: I Spy With My Little Eye
BFF Charm: Make It Rain
Talky Talk: Once Upon a Time, There Was Some Heavy Shit
Bonus Factors: Feminism, Ciphers, Graces, Katsa and Po
Relationship Status: We Got A Second Chance At Love, And We’re Better Than Ever

Just be warned — this review has spoilers for Graceling!

Cover Story: I Spy With My Little Eye

I like the cover! It matches the other two books, and the keys are important symbols – figurative and literal. It’s not embarrassing, and there’s no implied, “for a fantasy novel,” here. I could do without the creepy eye staring at me through the keyring, but whatevs. It’s faded and not noticeable, and it’s not like it’s looking at me while I’m reading. No, it’s looking at YOU.

The Deal:

It’s been nearly a decade since Katsa and Po rescued Po’s cousin, Bitterblue, from her vicious, evil father King Leck. A decade in which Bitterblue has struggled to grow up and figure out how to be a good queen to a deeply wounded country. Sneaking out at night, a simple act of curiosity and rebellion, she meets two thieves who are destined to change her life, and maybe the entire kingdom. When she starts to question her advisers’ policies of forward thinking, she discovers the path to healing is more complex — and dangerous —  than she can ever imagine.

BFF Charm: Make It Rain

BFF charm holding an umbrella

I can’t think of a single character from whom I’d withhold a BFF charm, except maybe one traitor. Bitterblue is so lonely — even though she has Katsa and Po, they’re never around and they’re older than she. Her advisers are kind to her, but they’re all seriously ancient and all they want to do is push paper at her and keep her locked in a tower. Because of her father’s abuse of his Grace, she can’t even trust whether or not her memories of her mother are true. Despite her sadness, Bitterblue has a sharp wit and tongue, and I’d be honored to be part of her court.

Then there’re Katsa and Po, of course; and Raffin and Ban, the prince of Middluns who wants to be a doctor, and his partner; Death (pronounced “Deeth,” thankyouverymuch) the cranky, Graced librarian and his cat Lovejoy, who brought me to tears by the end; Teddy, the sweet brown-eyed thief who’s more interested in words than a life of crime; and and AND Giddon. Giddon, whom I think I hated for part of Graceling, then just felt sorry for, but whoo boy. I wouldn’t give this boy a platinum BFF charm — I’d give him the platinum key to my panties. In the past ten years or so since his reluctant part in Graceling, Giddon’s gone from an overbearing rich boy to a tough-but-gentle manor lord who fights for justice and truth and the safety of all his people. And he has a sense of humor.

Swoonworthy Scale: 9

There’s swoon happening on so many levels in this book. Way back when I reviewed Graceling in my very first post for FYA (!), I was completely deflated and satisfied by the ending — Katsa and Po were so mature! No one put up a real fight about parting, there weren’t sighs and tears and struggles. In Bitterblue, Cashore gives us a deeper look at Katsa and Po — how much they love each other, how it rips them up to be apart, but also how important the work that separates them is. It’s been a long time coming, but le sigh.

As for Bitterblue and Saf, I wasn’t sold. Maybe there just wasn’t enough Saf, or maybe I wasn’t in the mood for a child-man who sulks when he doesn’t get his way, but while I thought he was ok for Bitterblue, he was more of a Mr. Right Now than a Mr. Right. The two kept so many secrets from each other, either lies (on her part) or refusal to disclose (on his) that it was hard for me to buy the relationship. I think Bitterblue fell for Saf because he was the first boy she’d really ever met, and if I can make predictions, she’ll move on. And I hope to hell she moves on to Giddon, because hot damn. Maybe I was projecting, but the affection between the two was definitely way more than is necessary for two old friends, the older of whom mentors the younger. I found myself wanting to shout at them to just make out already! Who cares about Saf! He’s a baby, and, Bitterblue, you need a MAN.

Oh, and Raffin and Ban are adorable as always, sneaking little kisses and whispers when they think no one’s watching, and when giving Bitterblue romantic advice, say things like, “Every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself,” causing men and women to quietly swoon in their wake.

Talky Talk: Once Upon a Time, There Was Some Heavy Shit

The book has the same fairy tale trappings of the other two books — Gracelings, funny names, castles, swords and horses — and like the other books, deals with some major issues. Cashore tackles post-traumatic event recovery, not just on a personal scale but on a national scale, in a way that brings to mind post-Franco Spain or post-Hitler Germany. And she does it in a thoughtful way without trivializing or being heavy handed with the allegory, while emphasizing the many differences individuals have in coping with trauma — and telling a hopeful love story. That’s a lot to pack in, even when there are nearly 600 pages to work with, but it’s fast-paced and vivid. She also doesn’t spend much time rehashing the previous books, which I appreciated even though I didn’t remember many details from Fire or even Graceling.

Bitterblue is more dimensional than Katsa was, fighting to define herself as a queen, as Leck’s daughter and victim, and as a friend, which she’s never had to do before — and all this while just trying to figure out how to start being a grown woman. Eighteen’s never easy, and Cashore shows this with graceful, spare language that sometimes has color and dimension of its own.

And so the interviews of her guards and clerks commenced, and Bitterblue found the ideas growing in a way that began to challenge the expediency of paper. Ideas were growing in all directions and dimensions; they were becoming a sculpture, or a castle.

And then everyone left her, to return to their own affairs; and she was alone, and empty and unbelieving again.

Bonus Factor: Feminism

Raised fists in different skin tones wearing nail polish

Like the young Victoria, Elizabeth I, Anne of Brittany, and so many other women before her, Bitterblue has to learn how to be a queen in a world where she’s never been intended to actually rule. She fights her advisers for knowledge and control and power — not just of her courts and kingdom, but of her future and even her bed. Every woman (and man) in the book has to make choices — children, lovers, jobs, causes — and they don’t take them lightly. They don’t all make the same choices, but they make the ones that are best for them, and it’s heartening even when it’s tragic.

Bonus Factor: Ciphers

Person tossing a Rubik's cube into the air

The Council, formed by Katsa and co to ride around righting wrongs, subverting corrupt authority, and teaching people to defend themselves, has stirred up lots of trouble across the Seven Kingdoms. Bitterblue’s country is at stake, and she wisely uses codes to communicate in writing. Many of the answers she seeks are also encrypted, and it’s fun reading the old “girl detective codebreaker” stuff — complete with actual examples!

Bonus Factor: Graces

Some of the Graces are totally lame, like being able to swallow your own head, but some of them are AMAZING. There’s a guy in the kitchens who always knows exactly what you need to eat in order to be totally satisfied! How useful is that, and WHERE CAN I GET HIM?

Bonus Factor: Katsa and Po

I’ve said a lot about them already, but I really enjoyed reading more about them. It made rereading Graceling a totally different — and better — experience.

Relationship Status: We Got A Second Chance At Love, And We’re Better Than Ever

This book! Oh, man. I had no idea what it was going to do to me. I really liked Graceling, until the end. Fire annoyed the shit out of me, with all her baby angst (ok, I was 5 months pregnant and annoyed by EVERYTHING, so maybe I should reconsider), but this book! Not only did I love the pieces out of it, not only did it speak to my SOUL, it also recast the previous two books and made them better. The sum is totally greater than the parts here, and I wish there was a way to read this one first, or simultaneously, or something, but I guess that would be kind of like reliving your teen years while retaining all your adult memories and wisdom. Anyway, we almost didn’t make it through that rough patch two years ago, but I’m so glad we’ve been able to rekindle the spark of our romance.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Penguin.  I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). Bitterblue will be available May 1!

Meghan is an erstwhile librarian in exile from Texas. She loves books, cooking and homey things like knitting and vintage cocktails. Although she’s around books all the time, she doesn’t get to read as much as she’d like.