Kick ass girls and women in fantasy make me so happy. These young women deal with all of the frustrations of growing up and becoming independent, falling in love, following their heart, and not letting anyone tell them who they can and cannot be.
Some of favorite badass young women are found in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series. Sabriel and Lirael are amazing. They are forced into situations that they are in no way prepared to deal with, but trusting themselves, they fight and claw and tear through. (Side note: there is a fourth full Old Kingdom book coming out in 2013. Excuse me while I do some excited celebratory movements. … Aaaaaaaand I’m back.) I’d like everyone to read anything by Tamora Pierce and hang out with her amazing young women. These girls are not going to sit by and let things happen to them while they watch. They have stuff to do and it’s going to get done.
Kristin Cashor has given us three new young women who stand up and work.
Bitterblue is the third book in the Graceling Realm series, following Graceling and Fire. I strongly recommend that you read them in order, even though Fire is considered a companion book.
In this world, some are Graced. Anyone born with two different colored eyes has a great talent to be discovered. It might be rather useless like being able to whistle without growing tired or helpful like being able to bake the most delicious bread or sing the sweetest songs. But it can also be dangerous. Some are Graced with killing or mind reading, or being able to craft untraceable poisons or having unstoppable strength. The kings of the realms use their power to take any child born Graced and hold them until their Grace is discovered. If they are useful, they will be kept. Because of this, kings have grown more and more powerful and more and more dangerous and corrupt. Gracelings are used as sport to entertain their kings, their Graces used against each other. Many Gracelings are openly distrusted because they could be hiding something and using it against everyone, Graced or not. This is a land where conspiracy and secrets and fear is thick.
There are spoilers ahead for those who have not read the first two. You’ve been warned.
Eight years have passed since the end of Graceling. Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea, and at 18 she is surrounded by older men who advised her father and who seem to want to help her. They also hide her from her own people. The realm is slowly healing from her evil father’s reign, and there are still secrets and whispers and Bitterblue realizes she’s helplessly, and possibly dangerously, uninformed.
Restless and suspicious, she begins sneaking out of the castle in disguise to spend time with her subjects in the hopes of discovering what is being kept from her. This leads to more confusion as she finds that people are remembering things differently. Some are content to forget everything the evil king did and refuse to talk of the past. Others want reparations for what was taken from them, but even here they seem hesitant to speak. It quickly becomes obvious that what Bitterblue is being told by her advisors is not what is happening on the streets. The rich continue to profit from the evil king’s reign and those who would speak truth go missing.
Bitterblue makes new friends and is exhausted by having to lie about who she is, and then having to hide what she is learning from her advisors. She is not sure who she can trust and what the truth is, but it is clear that something is very, very wrong. I was confused throughout because a character would seem to lie one minute, speak the truth the next, and then tell a half truth after. It felt impossible to know what the truth was, and which truth was the one to believe. Many good people are making decisions that were right for them, but are they right for Bitterblue and are they right for the kingdom? At what point does healing and rebuilding become harmful if the past is not addressed? And Bitterblue is caught because she doesn’t know everything that her father did.
I really enjoyed this book because you get to live in Bitterblue’s confused head. It’s clear that things are being kept from her, but because you only have her perspective, you’re as frustrated as she is. What are the right questions to ask? What can she reveal, and who can be trusted? There were several moments where I was almost in a panic because she was confiding in someone who might turn against her. I wanted her to have a trusted friend, but it was clear that people who wished her a long healthy life were also lying to her. And why were they doing it???
And on top of the weight of the crown, she’s eighteen and falling in love for the first time. But does a queen have a choice? Her advisors need her to marry royalty and produce heirs, but this is the last thing on her mind. She wants to heal her lands and make sure her people are safe. But can a queen even know what’s best for her subjects what she cannot even understand what their lives are like?
This series lives on my Absolute Favorites shelf. There are comforting faerie tale themes, but it’s not a cookie cutter plot and I was never sure who to trust or what mistakes Bitterblue was making. Cashore has created an amazing land and filled it with characters who are delightfully real. There is much heartbreak in these pages, but there is also hope and friendship and loyalty and love. At times Bitterblue is completely alone, and yet you know there is a chance that, even just for one moment, she will be understood and loved and protected and will know the truth.
Also? She knows the exact place to slip a knife into anyone who dares to attack her. How can you not like a young woman who can wear silks while killing?
This is a solid fantasy series and I recommend it to anyone who is looking for fantastic characters, both male and female. Read the other two first, then settle in to try to figure out what happened during the years when the evil king reigned.