The Graceling realm is a medieval-type fantasy world that revolves around seven kingdoms--and as we discover in Fire, there's a couple more kingdoms beyond a so-thought unassailable mountain pass. But though the setting is fantastical, the characters that Cashore creates are achingly alive.
Bitterblue, the royal daughter of the now-dead king whose evil spell still lingers over her realm, is the standout among all Cashore's complex creations. She's the reason I kept reading Graceling, and her eponymous novel achieves all the depths of lyricism and poignancy not quite realized in the former.
In this sequel, Cashore transforms one girl's existential pain and journey of self-discovery into a meditation on the role of government in society, the power of art to transcend horror, and the power of literacy and knowledge to check corruption.
At a crucial moment in her bildungsroman, influenced by a portrait (incidentally, of Fire, though she doesn't know it), eighteen-year-old Queen Bitterblue reflects:
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 troubled to be executed (p. 159).
Throughout her discoveries, Bitterblue finds, loses, and gains new friends, lovers, and allies; including a man who loses all his worldly goods for his beliefs; a righteous thief; a team printing ABC primers for the black market; and, most memorably, an abrasive librarian (and his cat) whose remarkable talent may yet save them all. She learns that those she thought she knew may have betrayed her in the deepest ways possible, while still loving her above all else.
Nothing in this book comes easy, and no character's motivations are pure (okay, maybe one or two). The legacy of a madman, especially when he is your father and a king, is a terrible one, and young Bitterblue faces it with cipher-breaking talents and an open mind. Unlike Cashore's other heroines, Katsa of Graceling and Fire of Fire, Bitterblue has no magical powers. Perhaps that's why her story rings truest of all.
Recommended to fans of fantasy, but also of deep character-driven fiction and social reflection. This is, fortunately or unfortunately, a book we need today, to remind us that the world is not black-and-white, but more like shades of bitter blue.