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?