Jun 12, 2014

Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore
Friends, I have a new favourite series.

Much of my life these past few weeks has consisted of staring into space thinking about all the different ways in which Kristin Cashore is brilliant, plus all the different reasons why I love these books. I’m sure many of you are not exactly shocked to hear this. I can’t even be all, “Why didn’t you tell me to read this series, Internet? Why? Whyyyy?” because, well, you did. Loudly and repeatedly. I only have myself to blame for not listening sooner.

(I feel like I’ve written these exact words before — and I probably have, because I know I keep doing this. Please feel free to use this as a cue to remind me of what else I should drop everything and read right now, for my own good.)

Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue are fantasy novels about young women trying to work out how to exist in a world full of unfair social arrangements and political structures that limit them. They each have a different protagonist and they focus on a different part of the world, but I’d strongly recommend reading them in order anyway because their plots are closely linked (more so than readers will realise until they get to the end). For the rest of this post I’ll talk about these novels in order, though much of what I’ll say about each could easily go for all of them.

When I read Graceling, I was very interested in the worldbuilding and the politics. I loved how rooted in patriarchal arrangements the threats these characters faced were (more on which later); I loved how Katsa decided to teach girls self-defence, but this went hand in hand with her work for the Council (an organisation she starts that is committed to addressing tyranny and injustice across the Graceling Realms). Systemic change happening alongside immediate practical solutions for individual safety — hooray! I loved how Cashore used a fantasy set up to create situations where the challenges these young women face face (condescension, objectification, being controlled by men) have such far-reaching social and political implications and such emotional resonance. I love that such a smart feminist fantasy novel exists, and of course I loved the romance and the frank discussion of intimacy, sex and contraception.

Whenever I come across a novel like Graceling, I realise just how much I crave love stories about this: about individuals realising that social scripts are not inevitable and then starting to negotiate their own boundaries and create their own rules. You can be with a person on your own terms; you can share yourself with someone without entitlement or ownership. You can realise that, as Bann puts it, “Every configuration of people is an entirely new universe unto itself” and depart from there. You don’t have to accept what you’ve been told about how love and romance must inevitably play out. I’ve seen this, I’ve lived it, and yet I haven’t found a lot of stories that delve into this process in depth. I’m immensely interested in how people negotiate the full package of heterosexuality in a patriarchal world, and I wonder if the fact that I haven’t yet fully explored the romance genre is the reason why what Graceling does feels so new to me. (Again, recommendations would be most welcome.)

Additionally, Graceling contains passages such as these — need I say more?
Po tilted his head at her. ‘Do you dislike children?’
‘I’ve never disliked the children I’ve met. I’ve just never wanted them. I haven’t wanted to mother them. I can’t explain it.’
She remembered Giddon then, who had assured her that this would change. As if he knew her heart, as if he had the slightest understanding of her heart. She threw another bone into the fire and hacked another piece of meat from the goose. She felt Po’s eyes, and looked up at him, scowling.

He offered himself to her. He trusted her. As she trusted him.
She hadn’t considered this possibility, when she’d sat alone in the forest crying. She hadn’t even thought of it. And his offer hung suspended before her now, for her to reach out and claim; and that which seemed clear and simple and heartbreaking was confused and complicated again. But also touched with hope.
Could she be his lover and still belong to herself?
That was the question; and she didn’t know the answer.
So yes, I loved Graceling. But Fire? Fire belongs to the realm of “I can hardly believe this novel even exists”. It’s the kind of story that causes me to have a minor emotional breakdown (from which I may not have yet fully recovered).

Fire is the only book in the series set outside the Graceling Realms: it takes place in a region called the Dells, of whose existence people in Katsa’s world are unaware. The Dells are inhabited by monsters — technicolor creatures that look like more beautiful versions of the animals we have, and which have the ability to charm their prey, to control their minds, and to make them (us) want to get closer.

Fire, a young woman with impossibly bright red hair, is part monster herself. Her beauty causes extreme reactions, and like her father before her she has the ability to get inside the minds of the unwary. But—very much unlike her father—Fire has qualms about doing so. I can very easily imagine what the misogynistic version of this story would be like: an impossibly beautiful woman uses her charms to manipulate, control and ensnare poor helpless men. That’s how the dominant narrative goes, after all: sexual attractiveness gives women unfair power. Men (assumed to be universally heterosexual) supposedly have no self-control, and this is something women take unfair advantage of.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Kristin Cashore is not interested in writing the misogynistic version of this story.

Instead, she’s interested in portraying the all too frequent violence and harassment women face; the victim-blaming and abuse apology; Fire’s frustration and exhaustion; the lazy narratives that dehumanise her; and the people who support her in demanding more. Men are not helpless; the idea that they are is a dangerous myth. They can see Fire as human and treat her as such. And likewise, women are not sexual objects, but human beings with complex emotional lives. It’s a simple and obvious Feminism 101 idea, yes, but there’s nothing simple about how it’s explored in this novel.

Fire is a little like Tooth & Claw in the sense that it makes things that exist as social scripts in our world literally true. Fire’s superhuman beauty works very well as a metaphor for the hypersexualisation of women and the sexual availability expected of them (which is separate from, though in some ways connected to, conventions of beauty and attractiveness). The fact that women are treated as sexual objects has nothing to do with individual looks, and as such there’s much about Fire’s story that’s immediately recognizable, unimaginable beauty aside.

When we first meet Fire, she’s involved with a kind and well-meaning yet jealous and controlling man; a man she cares about deeply but who often exhausts her. Fire and Archer grew up together and went from friends to lovers as teenagers. I can hardly begin to do justice to the amount of emotional complexity Cashore manages to add to their relationship: Fire’s need to get away and be her own person exists side by side with her love for Archer and with all the grief that losing him brings her. The thing about these books I keep coming back to is this: they feel emotionally true. They’re true to how people are, to how they navigate relationships and feelings in a complex world. The characters’ emotional lives aren’t ever oversimplified for the sake of story, and there’s so much here that helps build what is, to me, a profound and immediately recognisable picture of the world. While there’s more than merely one type of emotional experience I want to find in my reading, there’s a part of me deep down that hopes that every new book I pick up will give me something like what these books gave me.

And I haven’t even started on Fire and Brigan. Their relationship, which is moving and tender and incredibly satisfying, is all about making absolute sure that despite the dominant narratives about sex and love and possession and control, the person you’re trying to connect with recognises you as a human being and not a thing. It’s about being loved as a person, with all that entails, and getting to a place where you can trust that to be the case.

Oh, I can’t explain it properly. I’ll just have to show you a few passages that almost made my heart burst:
Why have I come here? she asked herself. What have I got myself into? I don’t belong in this place. Oh, Small. Why am I here?
From the warmth of her fondness for her horse she constructed a fragile and changeable thing that almost resembled courage. She hoped it would be enough.

Fire was thinking about Archer’s fear. She thought it was Archer’s fear that made his love so hard to bear. Archer was controlling and imperious, and jealous and suspicious, and Archer always held her too near. Because he was afraid of her dying.

And of course, the north was where Brigan has gone, because Brigan always went wherever things were going most badly. Fire supposed he needed to be there in order to give rousing speeches and lead the charge into the fray, or whatever it was commanders did in wartime. She resented his competence at something so tragic and senseless. She wished he, or somebody, would throw down his sword and say, ‘Enough! This is a silly way to decide who’s in charge!’ And it seemed to her, as the beds in the healing room filled and emptied and filled, that these battles didn’t leave much to be in charge of. The kingdom was already broken, and this was tearing the broken pieces smaller.

‘I’m not how I look,’ she said, bursting suddenly into tears. ‘I look beautiful and placid and delightful, but it’s now how I feel.’
‘I know that,’ he said quietly.
‘I will be sad,’ she said defiantly. ‘I will be sad, and confused, and irritable, very often.’
And this last bit? It’s okay. Because women are people full of messy, thorny humanity, and Fire and Brigain create a relationship model where this is not only acceptable but actively encouraged. This may not sound like much, but to me it is because these characters live in a world where everyone’s encouraged to strip Fire of her humanity and force her into a narrow role. And you know what? That strikes me as more than a little familiar.

So: Fire broke my heart in the best possible way, and just when I thought reading didn’t get any better (or worse, depending on your perspective), I got to Bitterblue. Even though Fire is the novel I felt the closest to emotionally, Bitterblue strikes me as the most mature, accomplished and nuanced of the three. It’s entirely possible that I’ll never get over it.

Just to give you a few quick examples, Bitterblue is where Cashore addresses the “magical cure” she introduces in Graceling and tries to make a certain character’s experience of disability more complex and less bogged down by stereotypes. And Bitterblue is where Raffin and Bann’s relationship goes from implied to canonical, which made me happier than I can say. The politics are more fleshed out in this novel, and the worldbuilding gains extra depth. As much as I fell in love with Cashore’s writing from book one, you can tell that she becomes an even better writer as the series progresses, and that was a joy to see.

Like Fire, Bitterblue is named after its protagonist: Bitterblue, the young Queen of Monsea, is trying to help her kingdom recover from thirty years of abuse inflicted by her father, King Leck. The novel deals extensively with the following question: “Leck is dead. But if Leck is dead, why isn’t it over?”.

This is where I have to pause to tell you a little bit about Leck, the antagonist in all three novels. Leck has the power to tell lies that will be believed by almost everyone he comes into contact with. And even more dangerously than that, his stories will retain their power to addle minds even if they’re repeated by people other than Leck himself. I have to say that Leck absolutely terrified me: unlike most fantasy villains, he wasn’t a stand-in for the idea of absolute horror, he was the real thing. Every reader is different, of course, and we all have different things that will hit us as perfect embodiments of horror. I have to say that Leck hit more of mine than I would have liked.

The reason for this is the animal abuse: there aren’t that many graphic descriptions in these books, but there was enough to conjure images in my head that are the stuff of nightmares. The rabbit in the prologue of Fire; Lovejoy, the library cat whose fur doesn’t sit right in his body, and Bitterblue’s eventual realisation about what this means — they’re the exact kind of details that make the horror all too real for me. So Leck terrified me enough that I wanted to recoil, which in a way made me feel closer to the characters in Bitterblue than I would have if I’d experienced the horror at a purely intellectual level.

It’s not just animals that King Leck abuses. When I said above that the threat in these novels is rooted in patriarchal tropes, I meant that they’re concerned with the consequences of the exercise of brutal, unmitigated power; with what being placed in positions of helplessness does to people; with dehumanisation, control and abuse; with how they’re spread and are rationalised and become the new normal that people somehow have to live with. So of course it’s not over when Leck dies — it’s really just the beginning.

I feel that I’ve already said a lot of what I was going to say about Bitterblue when I wrote about An Untamed State last week. To reiterate, Bitterblue is one of the most sensitive and thoughtful stories about recovering from trauma I’ve encountered to date. It reminded me a lot of Rose Under Fire, because both are very much about survival narratives and how they help people heal, but they resist the simplistic suggestion that there’s one single way of doing so. There’s a multiplicity of experiences accounted for here: all the different ways people pull themselves together are respected, and nothing and nobody is reduced to an easy answer. It’s all done beautifully, and the end result is more moving than I can convey.

In these books I have found a new favourite thing in the world. Isn’t that a lovely feeling?

More bits I adored (beware of spoilers):
She had an imagination, and she wasn’t shy of her own body; she’d made discoveries. And she knew the mechanics of two people. Helda had explained it to her, and she was pretty sure her mother had too, a long time ago. But understanding want and understanding mechanics did not go far toward elucidating how you could invite someone else to see you, to touch you in that way.
She hoped that all the kisses of her life, and all the things beyond, would not be with lords who only wanted her money.

Another short silence. When he spoke again, it was with a sadness and a quietness that she did not know how to associate with the Saf she knew. “But I don’t think you understand who you are,” he said. “I don’t think you realize how big it is, or how it maroons me. You’re so high in the world that you can’t see down as far as me. You don’t see what you’ve done.” And Saf moved around her, vanishing into the foyer without leave, shouldering through the outside doors, so abruptly that, finding herself alone, she made a small noise of surprise.

Somewhat uncomfortable now, Bitterblue returned to her mother’s chest, sat down, and forced herself to touch the edges of the question of just how, exactly, she had marooned Saf. What if the situation were reversed? What if she were the commoner and it had turned out that Saf was the king? Would she have been left marooned?
It was nearly impossible for her to conceive of such a situation. In fact, it was flatly absurd. But then she began to wonder if her inability even to imagine it had to do with her being too high to see that low, as Saf had said.

“Po,” she whispered, looking up at him. “I’m very wealthy, aren’t I?”
Po came and crouched before her, dripping. “Giddon is wealthy,” he said. “I’m exceedingly wealthy, and Raffin is more. There’s no word for what you are, Bitterblue. And the money at your disposal is only a fraction of your power.”
Swallowing, she said, “I don’t believe I quite appreciated it before.”
“Yes,” Po said. “Well. Money does that. It’s one of the privileges of wealth never to have to think about it, and one of the dangers too.” He shifted, sat. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m not sure,” Bitterblue whispered.
He sat quietly, accepting that.

What it did was return her to herself. For Saf reminded her of trust, of her capacity for comfort, her willingness to be loved. So that afterwards, when the pain came rushing back again, fresh and relentless, she had the strength to bear it, and a friend to hold her while she sobbed.
She cried for the part of her soul that had been clinging to Thiel and had fallen with him into the water, the part of herself that he’d torn away when he’d jumped. She cried for her failure to save him. Most of all, she cried for what Thiel’s life had been.

Bitterblue couldn’t explain it, but once again, with people here, everything seemed less hopeless. Perhaps it was the reminder of a world outside this castle, where life ticked along and Teddy’s bottom seized up, whether Thiel had jumped off a bridge or not.

She had one more ministry to build. Of all of her ministries, it would be the one with which she would take the most care. She wouldn’t force it on anyone, but she would make its existence widely known. It would be a ministry for all the people whose pain could be acknowledged, maybe even eased, by the telling and recording of what their own experiences had been. It would have a space of its own in the castle, a library where stories were kept, and a minister and staff that her friends would help her choose. Some of the staff would travel, to reach people who couldn’t come to the city. It would be a safe place for the sharing of burdens and the capturing of memories before they disappeared. It would be called the Ministry of Stories and Truth, and it would help her kingdom heal.
They read it too: Lady Business, The Literary Omnivore (Graceling); Fyrefly’s Book Blog (Fire); Stella Matutina (Bitterblue)

(I know I missed a ton - yours?)


  1. Yay! Finally! I KNEW YOU WOULD LOVE THIS SERIES!!!! Now give it to Renay if she hasn't read it.

    I haven't read Bitterblue yet (somehow I guess I'm afraid of a let down? Also, THE END!) but Fire is my favorite. Hands down. Cashore is an AMAZING writer. So glad you finally read these!!! I have the biggest smile!

  2. OMG HEATHER, READ BITTERBLUE. I PROMISE you won't be let down. Not one tiny little bit. NOT AT ALL. I think that's the only one Renay hasn't read yet - I shall endeavour to peer pressure her too :P

  3. I skimmed over your Bitterblue thoughts, but I couldn't agree more with what you said about Graceling and Fire! Interesting enough I had the exact same quote from Graceling listed as needing to be included in the review that I do not think will end up being written.. I have heard quite a few people say that Bitterblue was a bit of a let down after the other two books, so I'm glad to hear that wasn't the case for you. Yay for finding a new favourite thing!

  4. HOOOOOOOOW? I mean, to each their own and everything, but the thought of Bitterblue being disliked almost makes my head explode :P I honestly, truly don't think that will be an issue for you, Iris. And I know you have a lot on your plate right now and that blogging is hard, but I'd love to read your thoughts if you were to write them.

    1. [mumbling] I was one of those people who found Bitterblue pretty disappointing. But honestly, I found the whole series pretty disappointing. I likes Fire the best, I think, and now that I read your passionate commentary, I feel a little shallow and lame, but I just was not into these.

  5. Wow, this was such a wonderful review of one of my favorite series. Thank you for articulating so many of my thoughts about these books!
    Fire was/is my favorite as well (although I'm not completely done reading Bitterblue yet so maybe that will change). I think my favorite thing about Cashore's writing -- aside from her magnificent world-building -- is how she lets her characters be flawed and complex and human, which makes them feel like living and breathing people. She has a talent for characters that linger in your mind, long after finishing the novel.

  6. I have Graceling. Still have yet to read it, though!

  7. aw yay for finding new books you love so much.

    I think it's hard to process all the recommendations for books and so sometimes it takes us a little longer to get to great books than we'd like! I think we find them when we need to, bc I'm mystical like that ;)

  8. Tina: Yes, she's excellent at characterisation. It's been a few weeks since I've finished them now and I'm still thinking about these characters. Enjoy the rest of Bitterblue!

    Aarti: Nooooooooooo! Of course you aren't! I always feel a bit meh when someone's really into something and I just don't see the appeal, but my own enthusiasm always comes with the disclaimer that I never, ever think less of people who don't like whatever I'm excited about. Our taste overlaps most of the time, but I guess we're bound to disagree sometimes :P

    Tasha: Do, do, do! *jumps up and down excitedly*

    Amy: I like that thought <3

  9. I love this series. I ready Fire first and then Graceling. I listened to Bitterblue's audiobook. I totally agree that Leck is the most terrifying character EVER. He might not have been in Bitterblue as much as in Graceling but the effect of his terror somehow scared me enough not to want to listen to the book in the night.

    Bitterblue wasn't my favourite of the three books but I liked the way Cashore brought the three storylines together.

  10. Oh gosh, I loved Graceling and Bitterblue so much, so I have been afraid to read Fire, but now, well now I simply must! :--)

  11. So glad you loved these! I read (and reviewed) them quite separately--the first two as I came across them, and the third one when I finally unearthed it from my daughter's room. I think Graceling is my favorite, but that may be simply because it came first.

  12. I read Graceling and really liked it--I still have to read Fire and Bitterblue. My only complaint about Graceling was the romantic relationship between Katsa and what'shisface. They could have remained best friends and it would have been better. But that's a small complaint. I love the idea behind the Gracelings.

  13. At last! And, yes, you have no one to blame but yourself :). These books are the kind of books I crave and seek without end.

  14. Noted! I will remember them the next time I am in the mood for a YA binge. Them and the Raven Boys books -- if I have to choose between the Steifvater books and these, which should I choose?

  15. Also, oh my God, this is everything:

    >>>‘I will be sad,’ she said defiantly. ‘I will be sad, and confused, and irritable, very often.’

  16. I love these too!
    I thought they kept getting better, which I especially love because I feel like so many series have diminishing returns.

  17. SCREAM! I know you'd adore them. And reading your review just makes me think warm and fuzzy thoughts about the series in general.

  18. I'm so glad you found this series as it sounds perfect for you. What I love about these books is that they don't feel contrived; so often with these high-concept stories the idea overpowers the characters and they don't quite come to life. Not a problem here! As you say, they are founded in deep emotional truths, and that's how writing should be. I'm intrigued to see what Kristin Cashore does next (she probably is too).

  19. My book club went with Bitterblue for our June read and voted instead to reread the entire series. We also voted to have Richard Armitage play all the good parts (because that's how we do things). We basically just fangirl and cry all over Cashore's world and writing and its loveliness.

    And Po. Always Po.

    So glad you are in love!

  20. This was so great. I'm just going to keep coming back to bask in its greatness.

  21. I loved Fire the most! And i made a review on Graceling if anyone wants to check that :)
    Good review of yours
    my link:

  22. I have SO MUCH LOVE for these books, and for this post.

    My mother is one of the folks who wasn't too taken with BITTERBLUE. She loved the other two, but said that one just didn't hook her the same way. I, in contrast, added BITTERBLUE to my itty bitty list of Favouritest Books EVAR the very moment I finished it, so I've struggled to understand this position.

  23. This post made me want to read these stories all over again. I've read them all twice now, but I think a third time is in order. Thank you for writing so wonderfully, as always, making me think about books in a whole new way!

  24. I'm always glad when you write these super enthusiastic posts about books I've seen in the store and took one look and thought meh! So now of course I have to go find a copy of book 1 somehow because you put it at the top of my tbr list argh! ;)


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