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Someday My Printz Will Come
Inside Someday My Printz Will Come

Bitterblue

bitterblue BitterblueBitterblue by Kristin Cashore
Dial Books, May 2012
Reviewed from an ARC

I should probably be honest: I read this book as a fan first. I enjoyed Graceling and was impressed by Fire; I was more than curious about Cashore’s new book. Once I stole borrowed — with total intent to return! Someday! — Karyn’s copy, I read it and figured I was just reading it for myself. I love how feminist these books are, I love how strong Cashore’s protagonists are. But Bitterblue has stayed with me through the year, and it received four stars, bumping it into auto-contenda status. Yay!

So I’m being upfront and outing myself as a fan from the get-go — really trying to own my baggage, I suppose. But let me also say right at the start: I think this is a good read but unfortunately I suspect it’s not quite as strong on reread.

Many things are beautiful and work really well — particularly the themes Cashore employs, about memory and story and history and healing, are powerful and moving. I loved the idea of story rooms popping up around a kingdom denied memory, loved that any and all memories were welcome to be shared and celebrated. The first night that Bitterblue sneaks out of the castle and stumbles into a story room is magical reading: mysterious, intriguing, enchanting.

There are a number of moments where works of art bring complicated commentary to the Monsean world. Leck’s bridges are beautiful but horrifying — and help keep Saf safe. The art that Leck commissioned offers clues into what really happened, showing Leck’s obsession with remaking the world, with art and artists and the act of creation. Bitterblue’s reactions to the art Leck litters around the castle are tangled; at first she can only see Leck’s cruelty in them. Eventually, however, she learns to read other stories into the sculptures; she learns more historical context, allowing her to see more than her father’s story. There are also clues to the Dells, to Hava’s identity. Those sculptures of transformation are Bellamew’s only opportunity to tell her own story, albeit in a coded way.

Codes and keys are all over Bitterblue, too: keys leading to secret passages, secret rooms; cracked codes opening up secret diaries. Cashore’s celebration of literacy as a tool that can transform was inspiring (and, let’s be honest, made this librarian’s heart sing). Bitterblue’s insistence, inspired by Teddy, on establishing literacy in her kingdom is her way of bringing healing to Monsea. In fact, the very last thing we see Bitterblue doing is writing down a memory of Thiel and her mother.

In addition, Cashore’s writing, is lovely, the story is interesting (mostly), and the characters are well developed (mostly). So: there’s a lot that is fabulous. But I’m not convinced that it belongs on the shortlist because there are things that don’t quite add up, and I believe they’d be more obvious on second read.

Bitterblue has been back in her kingdom for eight years. I have no problem believing that she’d have no clue how to find her way around the city, and that’s part of why her disguised wanderings work really well. But she’s equally ignorant about her own castle; she spends a good portion of the book remembering parts of it she had forgotten — but how has she missed them for the past eight years? Her total dependence on the advisors seems way too simple, too. She is constantly asking them questions and getting information about history. Yes, Monsea’s history is exceptionally tangled and confusing…but wouldn’t some of this have come up already? And shouldn’t she have already noticed that they’re not answering her questions and misleading her? There are a lot of details like this — it’s difficult to believe that she knows only a small (tiny) handful of her castle staff. On the one hand, it’s a useful way to do a lot of info-dumping without overwhelming the reader; on the other hand, it feels like an artificial authorial device rather than being rooted in character or situation.

The politics are a confusing tangle — they are meant to be; as a reader, you’re getting the information alongside Bitterblue. So when the solution comes, it ought to feel like more of a pay off; you’ve had to work for it, after all. But actually, once the questions are asked and answered, things unravel too quickly and too simply. Leck was evil, everyone else was a victim: sorted and done. The broken, lying advisors; Danzhol’s kidnapping plot; the theft of the palace art; the creation of the palace art in the first place; all of this is the result of Leck’s cruelty, selfishness, and evil-ness. It seems way too easy to leave everything at Leck’s door. Does Bitterblue really not face any other dangers or threats to her rule? Only the past can tear Monsea down? That seems…unlikely.

Additionally, Leck is a pretty unsatisfying bad guy. He was scary in Graceling, creepy in Fire. But here, where he’s only on the page in flash backs — where he’s already defeated and dead — he’s a flat Bad Guy; we know he’s gone and his badness is just dull. While he’s never been particularly nuanced, he’s never been boring before.

The Dellian entourage feels like a Deus ex Machina solution sweeping in. While their presence implicitly raises a number of complications and considerations, there’s no time to delve into them because there are only a few pages left. We’re meant to assume that they are all good people, that they’ll be awesome neighbors. I suspect we’re meant to trust them simply because they’re not Leck.

I hate to end on such a negative note, because this book does have many strengths. But they’re not quite enough for me to tag Bitterblue as a contenda for the Printz. Maybe you guys can help me feel a little better?

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

Comments

  1. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make you feel any better about Bitterblue. This novel was probably the biggest disappointment of the year for me. I thought it was over-written, over-long, over-complicated for the message it ended up delivering (did we really not know who was behind of all atrocities from two books before?), confusing instead of being mysterious, too obvious in the delivery of its liberal agenda. Mostly, I felt it was belabored.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Tatiana, it’s cool, I think I’m feeling a little better — I guess clicking publish was about all the therapy I needed? *grin*

      I agree with the over-long criticism, and the belabored label…although I felt like it was actually under-complicated when all was said and done. And I’m wondering about the liberal agenda — what did I miss?

  2. Miriam says:

    I’ve actually reread already (I got my ARC six months early and reread the whole trilogy right before it came out) and did think it held up on a reread. I actually thought that while Fire is my *favorite* book of the trilogy, that Bitterblue is the best *written*–lovely, lovely writing, and very sophisticated. I didn’t read this as a book with a bad guy, actually–as Fire was a book about a generation coming into their own despite and because of the horror committed by their parents, Bitterblue was a book about recovering from trauma, and that was enough drama without having a bad guy. Yes, there were frustrations–yes, it’s long, yes, the romance is problematic–but it worked for me; the romance is problematic in a way that makes totally sense for Bitterblue’s character, the length felt right for a book that was dealing with long-term trauma and long-term recovery. The only parts that didn’t quite work for me were the neatness of meeting Fire and the Dellians.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Miriam, I have been thinking about your comment almost all day. I am still thinking about it, I think. But here’s where I am right now: yes, this is a book about trauma and healing from trauma, and it does that part of the story just fine. However, it’s also a very political book, and the politics are not very nuanced, interesting, complicated, or realistic, and that’s a huge flaw to me. It’s inescapably political; it’s a book about a queen! Surrounding countries are staging rebellions! Spies are reporting to the palace! There ought to be competing agendas. Bitterblue ought to be balancing all kinds of things while she’s queening. Instead, all she has to balance is the past and the present — totally fine when she’s an individual. Not so fine when she’s the head of the state.

      I agree that the romance worked and made sense for Bitterblue — that was actually one of the parts that I liked most about it. Saf and Bitterblue never could be together long-term, but I still enjoyed seeing them explore their relationship.

      And Tatiana, I didn’t think that Bitterblue’s and Saf’s romance was casual-sex, no-commitment — just that it’s not going to work long-term. (And from a series perspective, obviously Po’s and Katsa’s relationship is also not casual sex, no commitment. Was there a casual sex, no commitment relationship in Fire? I forget if so…but it seems to me that this series does not at all depict casual sex, no commitment relationships.) Some relationships just don’t work long term; that’s accurate to life, I’d say. Anyway, it’s accurate to my experience of life, which is why I didn’t pinpoint that as a part of a liberal agenda. Same for the same-sex relationships in Bitterblue. That part read, to me, as Cashore’s ability to write about a somewhat diverse group of friends in an accurate way. I have to agree with Mark here: visibility is not the same as an agenda.

      (And Mark…yes! Thank you!)

  3. Karyn Silverman says:

    I read this as a fan as well, and was left feeling somewhere between Tatiana’s and Sarah’s responses. It was a little too long, and too many things were simplistic or obvious, something that I found mildly annoying in Graceling but here, where the subtext is, as Miriam points out, about trauma and healing, become significant flaws in the context of the Printz. I do think the places where punches are pulled or softened are going to be much less of a flaw for readers than for critics. And as a reader, it’s a satisfying conclusion to a series that was a pleasure to read and is one of my go-to’s for recommendations.

  4. I kind of agree with under-complicated too. In a sense that the road to unveiling a very uncomplicated mystery of Leck’s reign was too complicated, with cyphers and codes and keys. Just dealing with the memories, suppressed or otherwise, would have served the simple mystery better, IMO.

    As for agenda, one aspect of it (no-commitment, casual sexual relationships) has been very obvious throughout the series, in every book. But in Bitterblue the emphasis on homosexual relationships was way over the top, I think. No less than 3 same-sex couples. It’s a tad too much for one story.

  5. Mark Flowers says:

    I haven’t read this one yet, but I wanted to respond to Tatiana’s last comment. Do the vast majority of heterosexual readers even notice when a novel has zero same-sex couples? The fact that having multiple same-sex couples in a novel can strike people as the author having an agenda is (to me) a sad statement about our culture.

  6. To me, it is a statement of how the author doesn’t trust her readers to get the message (like we did in Graceling where Raffin and Bann’s relationship was not even defined as romantic) and chooses instead to hammer it in. It’s hard not to take this approach as agenda-driven, when it is so much in your face.

  7. I’d say Fire and Archer’s relationship was pretty non-committal, same as a couple of others (with Archer) which resulted in pregnancies (I can’t remember the names now). The overwhelming percentage of those relationships, including that of Po and Katsa and Bitterblue and Saf’s, started and continued and ended with the assumption that they would not last. My question is, at what point does visibility of such relationships, as well as same-sex ones in Bitterblue, become so overwhelming that it can’t be denied that the author consciously and obviously is trying to send a very clear message to her readers? I assume, mileage will vary depending on a reader.

    And going back to visibility of same-sex relationships. I have just read A.S. King’s “Ask the Passengers” which has even higher number of gay couples in the narrative. That story felt organic, because the main character was a part of the gay community. Whereas in “Butterblue,” set in a feudal fantasy, it didn’t feel organic at all. It felt over the top. Again, to me.

    • Karyn Silverman says:

      Tatiana, are you saying Cashore’s agenda is to promote casual sexual relationships? Or merely to illustrate that they occur? I think the writing is clumsy, but I didn’t see an agenda so much as an uneasy blend of 21st century attitudes and a vaguely medieval, high fantasy world. Does it fail because it is not organic? Sure, but really, the fail is probably the world building, which has frankly been pretty awful throughout the series. I’m just not sure anything is organic here, because look too closely and the whole world is revealed to be a sort of kids drawing of fantasy. I enjoy these books, and I think there is a readership for whom these books are critical, but if this one were to actually pick up a Printz nod (she says, taking off the gloves), I’d eat my hat, and lose a lot of respect for the Printz process. But it won’t get a nod, because the process does work.
      I’ve digressed. I think it’s modern sensibility in a world that doesn’t necessarily seem to support that sensibility more than it is agenda, but I agree that there are flaws, no matter how we read it.

  8. Emily H. says:

    But to what extent does a medievalesque fantasy world require medievalesque social attitudes? It seems to me that the killer apps here are birth control (which seems relatively straightforward in this world) and religion (which seems to exert much, much less social control here than in medieval Europe.)

    I don’t know. I’m uneasy about it in the sense that fantasy authors rarely seem to imagine anything that isn’t either Repressive Olde Tymes or straight-up contemporary attitudes, and I’m by no means a historian, but this doesn’t seem to me to be a fatal problem (although for other reasons this isn’t one of my top Printz picks.)

  9. I’ve been following Cashore’s work for years now and my opinion of her is that she has strong views about what she wants to write about (she articulates those view consistently and frequently on her blog and in her interviews as well) and even if she doesn’t try to actively promote these views, they come through in her books very strongly. I would have liked her novels more if she could be more subtle. My problem with “Bitterblue” is not what views of hers she chose to put in it, but HOW. And from my perspective, it was done inelegantly, to say the least.

    Cashore’s next novel is supposed to be a contemporary. It will be interesting to say if the messages she consciously on subconsciously places in her books would feel more organic in a present day setting.

  10. Maureen E says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this one as a reader. I do think it’s doing something very different from the first two books in terms of the type of story it’s telling–this is, as Miriam said above, more of a coming of age than an adventure story, which is how I would tend to categorize Graceling & Fire. And reading everyone’s points above, I think they’re well taken and do bump it out of contention, though I think the reader appeal is definitely still there. I wish Cashore had just changed 8 years to something more believeable, like 2. Maybe this would have contradicted some timeline, but I don’t see it and it would have helped the overall narrative.

    As far as 21st attitudes go, the same could be easily said of Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books, which is how I think of Cashore’s. They’re not going to win the Printz, but they’re going to have a wide and devoted readership for years to come. (Tatiana, for what’s worth I originally come from a fairly conservative background and didn’t even notice the number of gay couples; the presence of things like widespread birth control and modern attitudes about marriage & sex are much less organic in my reading.)

  11. I want to clear up a misconception about me that seem to be going around in this discussion. I am not conservative at all. The main issue with Cashore’s books I have is her lack of fineness and subtlety in HOW she incorporates her personal views in her stories, not her views.

    Over the years I’ve read many Printz or starred books that take on various teen “issues,” and very often I find the handling of these issues too straight-forward, almost didactic and occasionally overwhelming to the story. It might be just a matter of my personal reading tastes, of course. I suppose some readers like to have things spelled out for them. But this is something that is, for me, a part of the conversation about literary quality, not a reflection of my close-mindedness and conservatism. I am not denouncing “Bitterblue” here, I am saying it could have been written better.

  12. Miriam says:

    (Ducking out of this discussion for now, because it’s getting heated in a way that I find uncomfortable in a text-only, no-facial-or-vocal-expression context.)

  13. Karyn Silverman says:

    I think we agree, Tatiana, and I apologize if it seemed I was saying I thought you were disagreeing with Cashore in any moral way. I was mostly just interested in your use of the word agenda — we both see the same issue, but I blame it on poor world building while you see it as authorial intrusion. Both make for a less literary work, but they stem from different places.

    Maureen, I think the world building in Tortall is better, in part because we grow up with characters and so we as readers get a sense of attitudes about sexuality along with the characters. And Tortall is a better developed world. It makes sense. The whole one city per kingdom, the city is named after the ruler thing in Cashore’s work is a good example of where the world is an outline. We read these — and in many cases, love them — despite these things, because we like the characters.

    On a related note, did any one else read the review of Crown of Embers by Rae Carson over at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy today?
    http://blogs.slj.com/teacozy/2012/11/01/review-the-crown-of-embers/

    I was struck, in the context of the comments from Sarah and Miriam about Bitterblue as ruler, by how impressively Carson managed it, as eloquently described by Liz (I’ve read it an largely agree with her) and I think it’s interesting that Crown of Embers is getting less critical recognition than Bitterblue, given how much more nuanced it is in its treatment of some of the same issues.

  14. Maureen E says:

    Apologies from me as well if I took things in the wrong direction.

    @Karyn, I do definitely see what you’re saying about Tortall and the worldbuilding there–what I was trying to say and needed to flesh out a bit more is that I think there’s a place for books like Pierce’s & Cashore’s outside the Printz-worthy group. That is, as a reader I’m totally fine with Bitterblue, while if I were on the Printz committee, I would agree that it’s not a serious contender.

    Re Crown of Embers, I’m actually reading it right now and am really, REALLY liking it. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first book, but it seems like both Elisa & Carson’s writing have grown up and I think it’s fantastic. I don’t know why it’s getting less critical recognition, although it was just published in September so it hasn’t been out as long.

  15. Helen says:

    I, too, was disappointed. Bitterblue was not an interesting character. She needed Po constantly. Did she just wake up fter 10 years and decide to explore? Was she sleeping the entire time to be so clueless. I’d not think her story was worth portraying. I understand Truman, but Bitterblue’s insensitivity to those who had it was remarkable and the nonstop focus on Leck got old. Bring Katsa and Po back.

  16. Karyn Silverman says:

    I had missed this at the time, but Malinda Lo wrote a fantastic 2-part post about heteronormativity and Bitterblue and this comment thread, among other things:
    http://www.malindalo.com/2012/11/heteronormativity-fantasy-and-bitterblue-part-1/
    Thought-provoking and smart and go read it.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      I had no idea Malinda Lo was reading, and am soooooooooo interested in her anthropological/world building take on this topic. Thank you, Karyn!

      And at the time, I had meant to link to Lev AC Rosen’s post: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/another_word_11_12/

      It’s not really so germane to the topic of world building and literary quality, but it’s tangentially related and TOTALLY worth reading.

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