While I was in NYC at Book Expo America, I attended an event at the New York Public Library. Kristin Cashore read the prologue of her newest novel, “Bitterblue,” and I was immediately hooked. I was able to get a signed copy while I was at BEA and read it on the bus ride home.
Oddly enough, the magical elves who live at Amazon have been recommending this book to me for the past month. I generally ignore the recommendations from the magical Amazon elves, but this one was spot on.
Just one more little detail before I jump into my thoughts on the book–“Bitterblue” is actually the third book in a series that begins with “Graceling” and “Fire.” Even though there are two books before it, you don’t have to have read either of them to know what’s going on in “Bitterblue.” Each book is basically standalone, but they’re set in the same universe and the stories are interconnected. I haven’t read the first two books, but I was immediately sucked into Bitterblue’s story and the prequels are now on my extensive TBR list.
Kristin Cashore uses a magic system where some people are born with a magical gift called a Grace. Graces can range from gifts such as strength to completely useless attributes, like being able to open your mouth really really wide. Bitterblue’s father had the Grace of being able to tell lies that everyone would believe. He used his power for evil and became an oppressive tyrant king. After his death, Bitterblue is left with the enormous task of healing her broken kingdom. However, she soon realizes that her life so far has been rather sheltered and that she knows nothing of life outside the castle. She begins sneaking out at night to learn more about her kingdom, only to find that her father’s influence hasn’t yet ended.
Those of you that have been following my blog for a while know that I’m a sucker for rule-based magic systems. I like the fact that the Graces in “Bitterblue” aren’t get-out-of-jail-free cards, but rather are incredibly specific. This makes the magical system feel like an organic part of the world rather than something mystical that nobody understands.
One of the neat little details that I loved in this book were the story houses, which were bars that had storytellers as a primary form of entertainment. I want to go to one!
I also liked the way that Cashore touched on issues that teens are facing in their daily lives without being preachy or too obvious about it. One of the secondary characters is gay and afraid to come out to his family, even though his friends accept him for who he is. Similarly, when Bitterblue starts to fall in love, she’s given an herb that prevents pregnancy, which was something that I thought was ingenious. One thing that bothers me in fantasy is that there are a lot of characters who can have all the sex they want and magically not get pregnant. Real life doesn’t quite work that way, and I like it when authors take the time to address it.
I’m generally a bit skeptical of YA novels, even though it’s an unfair bias. There are a lot of YA SF/F being published today, and I finally realized while at BEA that this is more of a change in marketing than of the types of books being written. Many of my favorite SF/F authors wrote for young adult audiences, but their books weren’t marketed that way and always ended up in the SF/F section of the bookstore. Over the next few months, I’m going to give the YA speculative fiction novels the attention they deserve, because books like this one are so amazing that they shouldn’t be overlooked.
Cashore’s writing is eloquent and lyrical. Her story was complex and imaginative. I would recommend this book a million times over to anyone who loves a good fantasy story.
I read this book as part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge.