Bitterblue (Graceling Realm Series #3)by Kristin Cashore
When Queen Bitterblue took the throne of Monsea, she was a child, and her advisers ran the kngdom for her. Now she is beginning to question their decisions, especially how they handle the legacy of her father Leck, who who ruled through his Grace—a special talent for mind-altering—and/b>
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Enter the Graceling Realm and let it work its magic . . .
When Queen Bitterblue took the throne of Monsea, she was a child, and her advisers ran the kngdom for her. Now she is beginning to question their decisions, especially how they handle the legacy of her father Leck, who who ruled through his Grace—a special talent for mind-altering—and his taste for darkness and violence. Bitterblue needs to know Monsea’s past to lead it into the future, so she begins exploring the city sreets at night, disguised and alone. As she does, she meets two thieves, who hold a key to the truth of Leck's reign. And one of them, with a Grace that he hasn't yet identified, holds a key to her heart.
Bitterblue is unforgettable—a gateway to the Graceling Realm that braids together magic, memory, and romance.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
"A story that transcends the genre with its emotional and philosophical weight."—BCCB, starred review
"Devastating and heartbreaking...those willing to take the risk will—like Bitterblue—achieve something even more precious: a hopeful beginning."— Kirkus, starred review
"Readers will gallop through [Bitterblue], eager to catch up on beloved characters and hopeful that the Seven Kingdoms can at last find peace. There are astonishing and sometimes heartbreaking discoveries...Buy all three volumes, in multiple copies."—VOYA, starred review
"Cashore's imagined world is brilliantly detailed and brimming with vibrant and dynamic characters."—School Library Journal, starred review
"Fans of...intricate political fantasies will relish this novel of palace intrigue."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Praise for Fire:
"Fresh, hopeful, tragic and glorious."—Kirkus, starred review
"Piercing and elegant."—Horn Book, starred review
"Vivid storytelling, strongly realized alternate world, well-drawn characters, convincing fantasy elements, gripping adventure scenes, and memorable love story."—Booklist, starred review
"Readers will fall in love."—SLJ, starred review
"Cashore is that rare gifted writer who can give a fantasy novel real depth."—Los Angeles Times
"There aren't enough words to describe how awesome this book is."—Romantic Times, Top Pick, Gold Star
"Elegantly written.…Blazes with the questions of young adulthood: Who am I? How do I stand in relation to my parents? What choices will define my life?"—The Washington Post
"Cashore sets herself apart."—The New York Times Book Review
Praise for Graceling:
"This is gorgeous storytelling: exciting, stirring, and accessible. Fantasy and romance readers will be thrilled."—SLJ, starred review
"An assured fantasy debut....In a tale filled with graphic violence and subtle heartbreak, gentle passion and savage kindness, matter-of-fact heroics and bleak beauty, no defeat is ever total and no triumph comes without cost. Grace-full, in every sense."—Kirkus, starred review
"Exquisitely drawn…While adult readers, too, will enjoy the author’s originality, the writing is perfectly pitched at teens struggling to put their own talents to good use. With this riveting debut, Cashore has set the bar exceedingly high."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"An impressive first novel.”—Booklist, starred review
"Rageful, exhilarating, wistful in turns."—The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
When he grabs Mama’s wrist and yanks her toward the wall-hanging like that, it must hurt. Mama doesn’t cry out. She tries to hide her pain from him, but she looks back at me, and in her face, she shows me everything she feels. If Father knows she’s in pain and is showing me, Father will take Mama’s pain away and replace it with something else.
He will say to Mama, “Darling, nothing’s wrong. It doesn’t hurt, you’re not frightened,” and in Mama’s face I’ll see her doubt, the beginnings of her confusion. He’ll say, “Look at our beautiful child. Look at this beautiful room. How happy we are. Nothing is wrong. Come with me, darling.” Mama will stare back at him, puzzled, and then she’ll look at me, her beautiful child in this beautiful room, and her eyes will go smooth and empty, and she’ll smile at how happy we are. I’ll smile too, because my mind is no stronger than Mama’s. I’ll say, “Have fun! Come back soon!” Then Father will produce the keys that open the door behind the hanging and Mama will glide through. Thiel, tall, troubled, bewildered in the middle of the room, will bolt in after her, and Father will follow.
When the lock slides home behind them, I’ll stand there trying to remember what I was doing before all of this happened. Before Thiel, father’s foremost adviser, came into Mama’s rooms looking for Father. Before Thiel, holding his hands so tight at his sides that they shook, tried to tell Father something that made Father angry, so that Father stood up from the table, his papers scattering, his pen dropping, and said, “Thiel, you’re a fool who cannot make sensical decisions. Come with us now. I’ll show you what happens when you think for yourself.” And then crossed to the sofa and grabbed Mama’s wrist so fast that Mama gasped and dropped her embroidery, but did not cry out.
“Come back soon!” I say cheerily as the hidden door closes behind them.
I remain, staring into the sad eyes of the blue horse in the hanging. Snow gusts at the windows. I’m trying to remember what I was doing before everyone went away.
What just happened? Why can’t I remember what just happened? Why do I feel so—
Mama says that when I’m confused or can’t remember, I must do arithmetic, because numbers are an anchor. She’s written out problems for me so that I have them at these moments. They’re here next to the papers Father has been writing in his funny, loopy script.
46 into 1058.
I could work it out on paper in two seconds, but Mama always tells me to work it out in my head. “Clear your mind of everything but the numbers,” she says. “Pretend you’re alone with the numbers in an empty room.” She’s taught me shortcuts. For example, 46 is almost 50, and 1058 is only a little more than 1000. 50 goes into 1000 exactly 20 times. I start there and work with what’s left. A minute later, I’ve figured out that 46 into 1058 is 23.
I do another one. 75 into 2850 is 38. Another. 32 into 1600 is 50.
Oh! These are good numbers Mama has chosen. They touch my memory and build a story, for fifty is Father’s age and thirty-two is Mama’s. They’ve been married for fourteen years and I am nine and a half. Mama was a Lienid princess. Father visited the island kingdom of Lienid and chose her when she was only eighteen. He brought her here and she’s never been back. She misses home, her father, her brothers and sisters, her brother Ror the king. She talks sometimes of sending me there, where I will be safe, and I cover her mouth and wrap a hand in her scarves and pull myself against her because I will not leave her.
Am I not safe here?
The numbers and the story are clearing my head, and it feels like I’m falling. Breathe.
Father is the King of Monsea. No one knows he has the two different colored eyes of a Graceling; no one wonders, for his is a terrible Grace hidden beneath his eye patch: When he speaks, his words fog people’s minds so that they’ll believe everything he says. Usually, he lies. This is why, as I sit here now, the numbers are clear but other things in my mind are muddled. Father has just been lying.
Now I understand why I’m in this room alone. Father has taken Mama and Thiel down to his own chambers and is doing something awful to Thiel so that Thiel will learn to be obedient and will not come to Father again with announcements that make Father angry. What the awful thing is, I don’t know. Father never shows me the things he does, and Mama never remembers enough to tell me. She’s forbidden me to try to follow Father down there, ever. She says that when I am thinking of following Father downstairs, I must forget about it and do more numbers. She says that if I disobey, she’ll send me away to Lienid.
I try. I really do. But I can’t make myself alone with the numbers in an empty room, and suddenly I’m screaming.
The next thing I know, I’m throwing Father’s papers into the fire. Running back to the table, gathering them in armfuls, tripping across the rug, throwing them on the flames, screaming as I watch Father’s strange, beautiful writing disappear. Screaming it out of existence. I trip over Mama’s embroidery, her sheets with their cheerful little rows of embroidered stars, moons, castles; cheerful, colorful flowers and keys and candles. I hate the embroidery. It’s a lie of happiness that Father convinces her is true. I drag it to the fire.
When Father comes bursting through the hidden door I’m still standing there screaming my head off and the air is putrid, full of the stinky smoke of silk. A bit of carpet is burning. He stamps it out. He grabs my shoulders, then shakes me so hard that I bite my own tongue. “Bitterblue,” he says, actually frightened. “Have you gone mad? You could suffocate in a room like this!”
“I hate you!” I yell, and spit blood into his face. He does the strangest thing: His single eye lights up and he starts to laugh.
“You don’t hate me,” he says. “You love me and I love you.”
“I hate you,” I say, but I’m doubting it now, I’m confused. His arms enfold me in a hug.
“You love me,” he says. “You’re my wonderful, strong darling, and you’ll be queen someday. Wouldn’t you like to be queen?”
I’m hugging Father, who is kneeling on the floor before me in a smoky room, so big, so comforting. Father is warm and nice to hug, though his shirt smells funny, like something sweet and rotten. “Queen of all Monsea?” I say in wonderment. The words are thick in my mouth. My tongue hurts. I don’t remember why.
“You’ll be queen someday,” Father says. “I’ll teach you all the important things, for we must prepare you. You’ll have to work hard, my Bitterblue. You don’t have all my advantages. But I’ll mold you, yes?”
“And you must never, ever disobey me. The next time you destroy my papers, Bitterblue, I’ll cut off one of your mother’s fingers.”
This confuses me. “What? Father! You mustn’t!”
“The time after that,” Father says, “I’ll hand you the knife and you’ll cut off one of her fingers.”
Falling again. I’m alone in the sky with the words Father just said; I plummet into comprehension. “No,” I say, certain. “You couldn’t make me do that.”
“I think you know that I could,” he says, trapping me close to him with hands clasped above my elbows. “You’re my strong-minded girl and I think you know exactly what I can do. Shall we make a promise, darling? Shall we promise to be honest with each other from now on? I shall make you into the most luminous queen.”
“You can’t make me hurt Mama,” I say.
Father raises a hand and cracks me across the face. I’m blind and gasping and would fall if he weren’t holding me up. “I can make anyone do anything,” he says with perfect calm.
“You can’t make me hurt Mama,” I yell through my face that is stinging and running with tears and snot. “One day I’m going to be big enough to kill you.”
Father is laughing again. “Sweetheart,” he says, forcing me back into his embrace. “Oh, see how perfect you are. You will be my masterpiece.”
When Mama and Thiel come through the hidden door, Father is murmuring to me and I’m resting my cheek on his nice shoulder, safe in his arms, wondering why the room smells like smoke and why my nose hurts so much. “Bitterblue?” Mama says, sounding scared. I raise my face to her. Her eyes go wide and she comes to me and pulls me away from Father. “What did you do?” she hisses at Father. “You struck her. You animal. I’ll kill you.”
“Darling, don’t be silly,” Father says, standing, looming over us. Mama and I are so small, so small wound together, and I’m confused because Mama is angry at Father. Father says to Mama, “I didn’t strike her. You did.”
“I know that I did not,” Mama says.
“I tried to stop you,” Father says, “but I couldn’t, and you struck her.”
“You will never convince me of that,” Mama says, her words clear, her voice beautiful inside her chest, where I’m pressing my ear.
“Interesting,” Father says. He studies us for a moment, head tilted, then says to Mama, “She is a lovely age. It’s time she and I became better acquainted. Bitterblue and I will start having private lessons.”
Mama turns her body so that she’s between me and Father. Her arms around me are like iron bars. “You will not,” she says to Father. “Get out. Get out of these rooms.”
“This really could not be more fascinating,” Father says. “What if I were to tell you that Thiel struck her?”
“You struck her,” Mama says, “and now you’ll leave.”
“Brilliant!” Father says. He walks up to Mama. His fist comes out of nowhere, he punches her in the face and Mama plummets to the floor, and I’m falling again, but for real this time, falling down with Mama. “Take some time to clean up, if you like,” Father suggests as he stands over us, nudging us with his toe. “I have some thinking to do. We’ll continue this discussion later.”
Father is gone. Thiel is kneeling, leaning over us, dripping bloody tears onto us from the fresh cuts he seems to have acquired on either cheek. “Ashen,” he says. “Ashen, I’m sorry. Princess Bitterblue, forgive me.”
“You didn’t strike her, Thiel,” my mother says thickly, pushing herself up, pulling me into her lap and rocking me, whispering words of love to me. I cling to her, crying. There is blood everywhere. “Help her, Thiel, won’t you?” Mama says.
Thiel’s firm, gentle hands are touching my nose, my cheeks, my jaw; his watery eyes are inspecting my face. “Nothing is broken,” he says. “Let me look at you now, Ashen. Oh, how I beg you to forgive me.”
We are all three huddled on the floor together, joined, crying. The words Mama murmurs to me are everything. When Mama speaks to Thiel again, her voice is so tired. “You’ve done nothing you could help, Thiel, and you did not strike her. All of this is Leck’s doing. Bitterblue,” Mama says to me. “Is your mind clear?”
“Yes, Mama,” I whisper. “Father hit me, and then he hit you. He wants to mold me into the perfect queen.”
“I need you to be strong, Bitterblue,” Mama says. “Stronger than ever, for things are going to get worse.”
Queen Bitterblue never meant to tell so many people so many lies.
It all began with the High Court case about the madman and the watermelons. The man in question, named Ivan, lived along the River Dell in an eastern section of the city near the merchant docks. To one side of his house resided a cutter and engraver of gravestones, and to the other side was a neighbor’s watermelon patch. Ivan had contrived somehow in the dark of night to replace every watermelon in the watermelon patch with a gravestone, and every gravestone in the engraver’s lot with a watermelon. He’d then shoved cryptic instructions under each neighbor’s door with the intention of setting each on a scavenger hunt to find his missing items, a move useless in one case and unnecessary in the other, as the watermelon-grower could not read and the gravestone-carver could see her gravestones from her doorstep quite plainly, planted in the watermelon patch two lots down. Both had guessed the culprit immediately, for Ivan’s antics were not uncommon. Only a month ago, Ivan had stolen a neighbor’s cow and perched her atop yet another neighbor’s candle shop, where she mooed mournfully until someone climbed the roof to milk her, and where she was compelled to live for several days, the kingdom’s most elevated and probably most mystified cow, while the few literate neighbors on the street worked through Ivan’s cryptic clues for how to build the rope and pulley device to bring her down. Ivan was an engineer by trade.
Ivan was, in fact, the engineer who’d designed, during Leck’s reign, the three city bridges.
Sitting at the high table of the High Court, Bitterblue was a trifle annoyed with her advisers, whose job it was to decide what court cases were worth the queen’s time. It seemed to her that they were always doing this, sending her to preside over the kingdom’s silliest business, then whisking her back to her office the moment something juicy cropped up. “This seems like a straightforward nuisance complaint, doesn’t it?” she said to the four men to her left and the four to her right, the eight judges who supported her when she was present at this table and handled the proceedings themselves when she was not. “If so, I’ll leave it to you.”
“Bones,” said Judge Quall at her right elbow.
Judge Quall glared at Bitterblue, then glared at the parties on the floor awaiting trial. “Anyone who mentions bones in the course of this trial will be fined,” he said sternly. “I don’t even want to hear mention of the word. Understood?”
“Lord Quall,” said Bitterblue, scrutinizing him through narrowed eyes. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“In a recent divorce trial, Lady Queen,” said Quall, “the defendant kept mumbling about bones for no reason, like a man off his head, and I will not sit through that again! It was distressing!”
“But you often judge murder trials. Surely you’re accustomed to talk of bones.”
“This is a trial about watermelons! Watermelons are invertebrate creatures!” cried Quall.
“Yes, all right,” said Bitterblue, rubbing her face, trying to rub away her incredulous expression. “No talk of—”
Bones, finished Bitterblue in her own mind. Everyone is mad. “In addition to the findings of my associates,” she said, standing to go, “the people on Ivan’s street near the merchant docks who cannot read shall be taught to do so at the court’s expense. Is that understood?”
Her words were met with a silence so profound that it startled her; her judges peered at her in alarm. She ran through her words again: The people shall be taught to read. Surely there was nothing so strange in that?
“It is in your power to make such a declaration,” said Quall, “Lady Queen.” He spoke with an implication in every syllable that she’d done something ridiculous. And why should he be so condescending? She knew perfectly well that it was within her power, just as she knew it was within her power to remove any judge she felt like removing from the service of this Court. The watermelon-grower was also staring at her with an expression of sheerest confusion. Beyond him, a scattering of amused faces brought the heat crawling up Bitterblue’s neck.
How typical of this Court for everyone else to act mad and then, when I’ve behaved in a perfectly reasonable manner, compel me to feel as if I were the mad one.
“See to it,” she said to Quall, then turned to make her escape. As she passed through the exit at the back of the dais, she forced her small shoulders straight and proud, even though it was not what she felt.
In her round tower office, the windows were open, the light was beginning to change to evening, and her advisers weren’t happy.
“We don’t have limitless resources, Lady Queen,” said Thiel, steel-haired, steel-eyed, standing before her desk like a glacier. “A declaration like that, once you’ve made it public, is difficult to reverse.”
“But, Thiel, why should we reverse it? Shouldn’t it distress us to hear of a street in the east city where people can’t read?”
“There will always be the occasional person in the city who can’t read, Lady Queen. It’s hardly a matter that requires the direct intervention of the crown. You’ve now created a precedent which intimates that the queen’s court is available to educate any citizen who comes forward claiming to be illiterate!”
“My citizens should be able to come forward. My father saw that they were deprived of education for thirty-five years. Their illiteracy is the responsibility of the crown!”
“But we don’t have the time or the means to address it on an individual basis, Lady Queen. You’re not a schoolteacher; you’re the Queen of Monsea. What the people need right now is for you to behave like it, so that they can feel that they’re in good hands.”
“Anyway,” broke in her adviser Runnemood, who was sitting in one of the windows, “nearly everyone can read. And has it occurred to you, Lady Queen, that those who can’t might not want to? The people on Ivan’s street have businesses and families to feed. When do they have time for lessons?”
“How would I know?” Bitterblue exclaimed. “What do I know about the people and their businesses?”
Sometimes she felt lost behind this desk in the middle of the room, this desk that was so big for her smallness. She could hear every word they were being tactful enough not to say: that she’d made a fool of herself; that she’d proven the queen to be young, silly, and naïve about her station. It had seemed a powerful thing to say at the time. Were her instincts so terrible?
“It’s all right, Bitterblue,” said Thiel, more gently now. “We can move on from this.”
There was kindness in the use of her name rather than her title. The glacier showing its willingness to recede. Bitterblue looked into the eyes of her top adviser and saw that he was worried, anxious that he’d harangued her too much. “I’ll make no more declarations without consulting you first,” she said quietly.
“There now,” said Thiel, relieved. “See? That’s a wise decision. Wisdom is queenly, Lady Queen.”
For an hour or so, Thiel kept her captive behind towers of paper. Runnemood, in contrast, circled along the windows, exclaiming at the pink light, bouncing on the balls of his feet, and distracting her with tales of consummately happy illiterate people. Finally, mercifully, he went away to some evening meeting with city lords. Runnemood was a pleasant man to look at and an adviser she needed, the one most adept at warding away ministers and lords who wished to talk Bitterblue’s ear off with requests, complaints, and obesiances. But that was because he himself knew how to be pushy with words. His younger brother, Rood, was also one of Bitterblue’s advisers. The two brothers, Thiel, and her secretary and fourth adviser, Darby, were all about sixty or so, though Runnemood didn’t look it. The others did. All four had been advisers to Leck. “Were we short-staffed today?” Bitterblue asked Thiel. “I don’t remember seeing Rood.”
“Rood is resting today,” said Thiel. “And Darby is unwell.”
“Ah.” Bitterblue understood the code: Rood was having one of his nervous episodes and Darby was drunk. She rested her forehead on the desk for a moment, afraid that otherwise she’d laugh. What would her uncle, who was the King of Lienid, think of the state of her advisers? King Ror had chosen these men as her team, judging them, on the basis of their previous experience, to be the men most knowledgeable about the kingdom’s needs for recovery. Would their behavior today surprise him? Or were Ror’s own advisers equally colorful? Perhaps this was the way in all seven kingdoms.
And perhaps it didn’t matter. She had nothing to complain of when it came to her advisers’ productivity, except perhaps that they were too productive. The paper that piled itself on her desk every day, every hour, was the evidence: taxes levied, court judgments rendered, prisons proposed, laws enacted, towns chartered; paper, paper, until her fingers smelled like paper and her eyes teared at the sight of paper and sometimes her head pounded.
“Watermelons,” Bitterblue said into the surface of her desk.
“Lady Queen?” said Thiel.
Bitterblue rubbed at the heavy braids wound around her head, then sat up. “I never knew there were watermelon patches in the city, Thiel. On my next yearly tour, may I see one?”
“We intend your next tour to coincide with your uncle’s visit this winter, Lady Queen. I’m no expert on watermelons, but I don’t believe they’re particularly impressive in January.”
“Could I go out on a tour now?”
“Lady Queen, it is the very middle of August. When do you imagine we could make time for such a thing in August?”
The sky all around this tower was the color of watermelon flesh. The tall clock against the wall ticked the evening away, and above her, through the glass ceiling, the light darkened to purple. One star shone. “Oh, Thiel,” Bitterblue said, sighing. “Go away, won’t you?”
“I will, Lady Queen,” said Thiel, “but first, I wish to discuss the matter of your marriage.”
“You’re eighteen, Lady Queen, with no heir. A number of the six kings have sons yet unmarried, including two of your own cousins—”
“Thiel, if you start listing princes again, I’ll throw ink at you. If you so much as whisper the names of my cousins—”
“Lady Queen,” Thiel said, talking over her, completely unperturbed, “as little as I wish to upset you, this is a reality that must be faced. You’ve developed a fine rapport with your cousin Skye in the course of his ambassadorial visits. When King Ror comes this winter, he’ll probably bring Prince Skye with him. Between now and then, we’ll have to have this discussion.”
“We won’t,” Bitterblue said, clutching her pen hard. “There’s nothing to discuss.”
“We will,” said Thiel firmly.
If she looked closely enough, Bitterblue could make out the lines of healed scars on Thiel’s cheekbones. “There’s something I’d like to discuss,” she said. “Do you remember the time you came into my mother’s rooms to say something to my father that made him angry and he brought you downstairs through the hidden door? What did he do to you down there?”
It was as if she’d blown out a candle. He stood before her, tall, gaunt, and confused. Then even the confusion faded and the light went out of his eyes. He smoothed his impeccable shirtfront, staring down at it, tugging, as if tidiness mattered greatly in this moment. Then he bowed once, quietly; turned; and walked out of the room.
Left alone, Bitterblue shuffled papers, signed things, sneezed at the dust—tried, and failed, to talk herself out of a small shame. She’d done it on purpose. She’d known full well that he wouldn’t be able to bear her question. In fact, almost all of the men who worked in her offices, from her advisers to her ministers and clerks to her personal guard—those who had been Leck’s men—flinched away from direct reminders of the time of Leck’s reign—flinched away, or fell apart. It was the weapon she always used when one of them pushed her too far, for it was the only weapon she had that worked. She suspected that there’d be no more marriage talk for a while.
Her advisers had a single-mindedness that left her behind sometimes. That was why the marriage talk frightened her: Things that started as mere talk among them seemed to become real institutions, suddenly, forcefully, before she’d ever managed to comprehend them or form an opinion. It had happened with the law that gave blanket pardons for all crimes committed during Leck’s reign. It had happened with the charter provision that allowed towns to break free of their governing lords and rule themselves. It had happened with the suggestion—just a suggestion!—to block off Leck’s old living chambers, take down his animal cages in the back garden, and burn his belongings.
And it wasn’t that she was necessarily opposed to any of these measures, or regretted her approval once things settled down enough for her to comprehend that she’d approved. It was only that she didn’t know what she thought, she needed more time than they did, she couldn’t always be rushing ahead the way they were, and it frustrated her to look back and realize that she’d let herself be pushed into something. “It’s deliberate, Lady Queen,” they’d told her, “a deliberate philosophy of forward-thinkingness. You’re right to encourage it.”
“Lady Queen,” Thiel had said gently, “we’re trying to lift people out of Leck’s spell and help them move on, you understand? Otherwise, people will wallow in their own upsetting stories. Have you spoken to your uncle about it?”
Yes, she had. Bitterblue’s uncle, after Leck’s death, had come halfway across the world for his niece. King Ror had created Monsea’s new statutes, formed its ministries and courts, chosen its administrators, then passed the kingdom into Bitterblue’s ten-year-old hands. He’d seen to the burning of Leck’s body and mourned the murder of his own sister, Bitterblue’s mother, who was gone. Ror had brought order out of chaos in Monsea. “Leck is still lodged in too many people’s minds,” he had said to her. “His Grace is a sickness that lingers, a nightmare you must help people to forget.”
But how was forgetting possible? Could she forget her own father? Could she forget that her father had murdered her mother? How could she forget the rape of her own mind?
Bitterblue laid her pen down and went, cautiously, to an east-facing window. She put a hand to the frame to steady herself and rested her temple against the glass, closing her eyes until the falling sensation receded. At the base of her tower, the River Dell formed the city’s northern boundary. Opening her eyes, she followed the river’s south bank east, past the three bridges, past where she guessed the silver docks and lumber docks, fish and merchant docks to be. “Watermelon patch,” she said, sighing. Of course, it was too far and too dark to see any such thing.
The River Dell here, as it lapped at the castle’s north walls, was slow-moving and wide as a bay. The boggy ground on the opposite shore was undeveloped, untraveled except by those who lived in Monsea’s far north, but still, for some unaccountable reason, her father had built the three bridges, each higher and more magnificent than any bridge needed to be. Winged Bridge, the closest, had a floor of white and blue marble, like clouds. Monster Bridge, the highest, had a walkway that rose as high as its highest arch. Winter Bridge, made of mirrors, was eerily hard to distinguish from the sky during the day, and sparkled with the light of the stars, the water, the city at night. They were purple and crimson shapes now in the sunset, the bridges, unreal and almost animal. Huge, slender creatures that stretched north across flashing water to useless land.
The falling sensation crept up on her again. Her father had told her a story of another sparkling city, also with bridges and a river—a rushing river whose water leapt off a cliff, plummeted through the air, and plunged into the sea far below. Bitterblue had laughed in delight to hear of that flying river. She had been five or six. She’d been sitting in his lap.
Leck, who tortured animals. Leck, who made little girls and hundreds of other people disappear. Leck, who became obsessed with me and chased me across the world.
Why do I push myself to these windows when I know I’ll be too dizzy to get a good look at anything? What is it that I’m trying to see?
She entered the foyer of her rooms that night, turned right to her sitting room, and found Helda knitting on the sofa. The servant girl Fox was washing the windows.
Helda, who was Bitterblue’s housekeeper, ladyservant, and spymaster, reached a hand into a pocket and passed Bitterblue two letters. “Here you are, dear. I’ll ring for dinner,” she said, heaving herself up, patting her white hair, and leaving the room.
“Oh!” Bitterblue flushed with pleasure. “Two letters.” She broke open the plain seals and peeked inside. Both were ciphered and both written in hands she knew instantly, the messy scrawl belonging to Lady Katsa of the Middluns, the careful, strong markings belonging to Prince Po of Lienid, who was Skye’s younger brother, and, with Skye, one of the two unmarried sons of Ror who would make Bitterblue dreadful husbands. Truly, comically dreadful.
She found a corner of the sofa to curl up in and read Po’s first. Po had lost his sight eight years ago. He could not read words on paper, for while the part of his Grace that allowed him to sense the physical world around him compensated for many aspects of his blindness, he had trouble demystifying differences on flat surfaces, and he could not sense color. He wrote in large letters with a sharp piece of graphite, because graphite was easier to control than ink, and he wrote with a ruler as a guide, since he could not see what he was writing. He also used a small set of movable wooden letters as a reference to help him keep his own ciphers straight in his mind.
Just now, his letter said, he was in the northern kingdom of Nander, stirring up trouble. Switching letters, Bitterblue read that Katsa, who was an unparalleled fighter and Graced with survival skills, had been dividing her time among the kingdoms of Estill, Sunder, and Wester, where she was also stirring up trouble. That was what they did with themselves, those two Gracelings, along with a small band of friends: They stirred up trouble on a serious scale—bribery, coercion, sabotage, organized rebellion—all directed at stopping the worst behavior of the world’s most seriously corrupt kings. “King Drowden of Nander has been imprisoning his nobles randomly and executing them, because he knows some are disloyal, but isn’t sure which,” wrote Po. “We’re going to spring them from prison. Giddon and I have been teaching townspeople to fight. There’s going to be a revolution, Cousin.”
Both letters ended the same way. Po and Katsa hadn’t seen each other in months, and neither of them had seen Bitterblue in over a year. Both intended to come to Bitterblue as soon as their work could spare them, and stay as long as they could.
Bitterblue was so happy that she curled herself up in a ball on the sofa and hugged a pillow for a full minute.
At the far end of the room, Fox had managed to climb to the very top of the tall windows, bracing her hands and feet against the window frames. There, she rubbed at her own reflection vigorously, polishing the surface to a high shine. Wearing a divided skirt of blue, Fox matched her surroundings, for Bitterblue’s sitting room was blue, from the carpet to the blue-and-gold walls to the ceiling, which was midnight blue and stenciled with gold and scarlet stars. The royal crown sat on a blue velvet cushion in this room, always, except when Bitterblue wore it. A hanging of a fantastical sky-blue horse with green eyes marked the hidden door that had once given passage down to Leck’s rooms below, before people had come in and done something to block off the stairway.
Fox was a Graceling, with one eye pale gray and the other dark gray, and she was startlingly pretty, almost glamorous, red-haired and strong-featured. Her Grace was a strange one: fearlessness. But it was not fearlessness combined with recklessness; it was only a lack of the unpleasant sensation of fear; and, in fact, Fox had what Bitterblue interpreted to be an almost mathematical ability to calculate physical consequences. Fox knew better than anyone what was likely to happen if she slipped and fell out of the window. It was that knowledge that kept her careful, rather than the feeling of fear.
Bitterblue thought such a Grace was wasted in a castle servant, but in post-Leck Monsea, Gracelings were not the property of the kings; they were free to work where they liked. And Fox seemed to like doing odd jobs in the upper north floors of the castle—though Helda did talk about trying her as a spy sometime.
“Do you live in the castle, Fox?” asked Bitterblue.
“No, Lady Queen,” answered Fox from her perch. “I live in the east city.”
“You work strange hours, don’t you?”
“It suits me, Lady Queen,” Fox responded. “Sometimes, I work the night through.”
“How do you get in and out of the castle at such odd hours? Does the Door Guard ever give you a hard time?”
“Well, it’s never any trouble getting out; they’ll let anyone out, Lady Queen. But to come in at the gatehouse at night, I show a bracelet that Helda’s given me, and to get past the Lienid at your own doors, I show the bracelet again and give the password.”
“It changes every day, Lady Queen.”
“And how do you get the password yourself?”
“Helda hides it for us somewhere, in a different place every day of the week, Lady Queen.”
“Oh? What is it today?”
“‘Chocolate pancake,’ Lady Queen,” said Fox.
Bitterblue lay on her back on the sofa for a while, giving this its due consideration. Every morning at breakfast, Helda asked Bitterblue to name a word or words that could serve as the key for any ciphered notes they were likely to pass to each other during the day. Yesterday morning, Bitterblue had chosen “chocolate pancake.” “What was yesterday’s password, Fox?”
“‘Salted caramel,’” said Fox.
Which had been the key Bitterblue had chosen two days ago. “What delicious passwords,” Bitterblue said idly, an idea forming in her mind.
“Yes, Helda’s passwords always make me hungry,” Fox said.
A hood lay draped on the edge of Bitterblue’s sofa, deep blue, like the sofa. Fox’s hood, certainly; Bitterblue had seen her wear simple coverings like that before. It was much plainer than any of Bitterblue’s coats.
“How often do you suppose the Lienid Door Guard changes guard?” Bitterblue asked Fox.
“Every hour on the hour, Lady Queen,” Fox responded.
“Every hour! That’s quite often.”
“Yes, Lady Queen,” replied Fox blandly. “I don’t suppose there’s much continuity in what any of them sees.”
Fox stood on the solid floor again, bent over a bucket of suds, her back to the queen.
Bitterblue took the hood, tucked it under her arm, and slipped out of the room.
Bitterblue had watched spies enter her rooms at night before, hooded, hunched, unrecognizable until they’d removed their covering garments. Her Lienid Door Guard, a gift from King Ror, guarded the castle’s main entrance and the entrance to Bitterblue’s living quarters, and did so with discretion. They were under no obligation to answer the questions of anyone but Bitterblue and Helda, not even the Monsean Guard, which was the kingdom’s official army and police. This gave Bitterblue’s personal spies the freedom to come and go without their presence being noted by her administration. It was a strange little provision of Ror’s, to protect Bitterblue’s privacy. Ror had a similar arrangement in Lienid.
The bracelet was no problem, for the bracelet Helda gave her spies was a plain leather cord on which hung a replica of a ring Ashen had worn. It was a proper Lienid ring in design: gold, inset with tiny, sparkly, deep gray stones. Every ring worn by a Lienid represented a particular family member, and this was the ring Ashen had worn for Bitterblue. Bitterblue had the original. She kept it in her mother’s wooden chest in the bedroom, along with all of Ashen’s rings.
It was strangely affecting to tie this ring to her wrist. Her mother had shown it to her many times, explained that she’d chosen the stones to match Bitterblue’s eyes. Bitterblue hugged her wrist to her body, trying to decide what her mother would think of what she was about to do.
Well. And Mama and I snuck out of the castle once too. Though not this way; by the windows. And with good reason. She was trying to save me from him.
She did save me. She sent me on ahead and stayed behind to die.
Mama, I’m not sure why I’m doing what I’m about to do. Something is missing, do you see? Piles of paper at my desk in my tower, day in, day out. That can’t be all there is. You understand, don’t you?
Sneaking was a kind of deceit. So was disguise. Just past midnight, wearing dark trousers and Fox’s hood, the queen snuck out of her own rooms and stepped into a world of stories and lies.
What People are Saying About This
• “Devastating and heartbreaking.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
• “Brilliantly detailed and brimming with vibrant and dynamic characters.”—SLJ, starred review
• “Fans of . . .intricate political fantasies will relish this novel of palace intrigue.”— Publishers Weekly, starred review
“An exceptional book: heartbreaking, deep, and beautiful.”—wandsandworlds.com
“Cashore is wonderful, tough and nuanced—everything you could want from a writer.”—Junot Díaz, author of This is How You Lose Her
Meet the Author
Kristin Cashore grew up in the northeast Pennsylvania countryside as the second of four daughters. She received a bachelor's degree from Williams College and a master's from the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College, and she has worked as a dog runner, a packer in a candy factory, an editorial assistant, a legal assistant, and a freelance writer. She has lived in many places (including Sydney, New York City, Boston, London, Austin, and Jacksonville, Florida), and she currently lives in the Boston area. Her epic fantasy novels set in the Graceling Realm--Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue--have won many awards and much high praise, including picks as ALA Best Books for Young Adults, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Booklist Editors Choice, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. In addition, Graceling was shortlisted for the William C. Morris Debut Award and Fire is an Amelia Elizabeth Walden Book Award Winner.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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It's been 8 years since Leck died and Bitterblue ascended the throne. Her days consist of meetings, mounds of paperwork, and attending to the mundane inner-workings of her rule. She is 18 now, living a lonely existence surrounded only by advisers and servants, having essentially been locked away in an ivory tower. Becoming frustrated at her isolation, she begins to disguise herself at night and sneak out into the streets of the city. She has been assured that her kingdom is well-run and that her people are educated and happy, but life outside the castle is very different from what she has been led to believe. She has been lied to about many things. Vast parts of the city are in disrepair, the majority of the people are illiterate, and those who wish to tell the truth about events that occurred during Leck's reign are being attacked and killed. She realizes that her kingdom is broken, still reeling eight years later from the effects of Leck and his sadism. Can she be the queen her people need her to be, when she fears that she may be broken, too? This book is so rich in its storytelling. Bitterblue is just as smart and fierce as we saw her in Graceling, but she is also sad and lonely and confused. The closer she gets to the truth, the more lengths certain people will go to hide it. Little by little she finds the pieces of the puzzle and begins to construct the true picture of Leck's legacy, but we are never entirely sure whom of those around her can be trusted. The truths that Bitterblue uncovers are heartbreaking and terrible, but she must persevere in order for her kingdom to move forward and heal. We see quite a bit of Po, and some of Katsa as well as a few other characters from the first book (Giddon, Bann, Raffin, Skye), and it's interesting to see how very little they've changed over the years. I thought one or two of them might be married by now, might have families, etc, but no. They are heavily involved in the Council, which has become much more powerful throughout the seven kingdoms. The beginning was great, I was hooked immediately; the ending is satisfying, all the loose ends are tied up. My one quibble with the book is the bloated middle. It could have been trimmed down and the story would have flowed better, in my opinion. There are too many subplots involving too many minor characters and after a while it became tedious. Enough bits of the main story kept bobbing up to keep my interest, but I think it should have been more concise. Overall, though, I loved it. I hope Cashore keeps writing about strong female characters. It's so refreshing.
Bitterblue kept me engaged. It's long, but its really good. I would recommend it for 14 and over because it hints at adult content.
Graceling and Fire were good, but Bitterblue just blew me away! Finished the book in one day, great story plot, youre mind will be rattling at all the secrets you will find out. Mysterious and entertaining. Definitely on my list of best books i have ever read. If you like The Hunger Games, you will love and adore these three books!! MUST READ
I am a teen and I really enjoyed Graceling. can't wait to read more
This was a great book. It tied up all the loose ends from the former book and how they all related to eachother. This book takes place approximately eight years after Leck's death. Bitterblue is the queen of Monsea and struggling to heal her broken kingdom from her tyrannical father, Leck. As she tries to figure out all the mysteries her father left in his tracks, she comes across romance, betrayal and horrible, as well as suprising discoveries. Death is around every corner and reveals itself to the least likely characters at the least likely moments. Mystery and romance play together in an intwined tale as Bitterblue uncovers everything from her past. New characters are introduced in this story and at times, things are a bit confusing. The book can be redundant and boring at times, and quick-paced at others, but overall this was a fantastic book. I suggest rereading (if you have not already) the first two books before starting on this because I got confused at the many mentions of former characters and places. You should really consider buying this book, for it was extremely interesting in all aspects and was totally worth the money.
I loved Graceling and Fire, they were beautiful and well written books with entire worlds between the covers. I have been waiting for this book to come out, and by the time i finished it, i admittedly cried several times. It is a wonderful book that imbues all the emotions of real life into every character and situation, and a brilliant meeting point for the main characters of all three books.
This is yet another great book by kristin cashore. Definitely recomend it to everyone.
If you are wondering if it's ok to read Bitterblue and go back and read Graceling... Well if you dont like Spoilers I would read Graceling first. I finished the book last night. There are so many things I liked about this book and things I did not. I can say though that I enjoyed Graceling and Fire much more than I did Bitterblue the book. I was not much attached to Bitterblue (in the book Bitterblue) as I was Katsa and Fire which is weird considering I loved Bitterblue in Graceling. I don't want to give any spoilers. If you get to Part 3 (Part 1 & 2 are slow) I will say that it's worth finishing and having your own opinion about (there are 5 parts total). I did enjoy reading about Katsa and Po as they are in the book (the author already stated this months ago on her website) another character I liked was Hava. I found Thiel to be very frustrating. Another thing, I wished I had known there was a map in the back of the book I could refer to of Bitterblue's castle while reading the book. I didn't find it until the end. So you do have that to refer to if you want.
I really really wanted to love this book, but I just couldn't. So many of the parts in the story just seemed to drag on and it lost my attention many times. There definitely was not enough of Saf and Bitterblue and it jet seemed like Cashore was trying to get their relationship out of the way. There was a LOT of politics in the story and that just bored me. But on the other hand, Bitterblue had a lost of confused emotions and that made her a very interesting and complex character. The whole mystery aspect in the story was really confusing and I had no idea what was happening in many parts that should have filled the gaps.
I bought this book because I loved the book Graceling and couldn't bear to end the series. I also love a long read. But this book portrayed many qualities I did not enjoy. 1. Parts of the book didn't lead up to anything in the story and were overall useless to the book. 2. The book's questions from the beginning never built up answers, but really just ended them suddenly leaving the reader confused. 3. The romance was awful. Saf was ruthless and un-intelligiant and made horrible decisions when he was angry and wouldn't make a good king. 4. The story was filled with politics not needed. 5. Saying balls when she is frustrated. Isn't she like 18? 6. I felt like Lady Fire had nothing to do with the story but they added her anyway. 7. Characters dieing before we could connect. 8. Katsa wasn't like she was in Graceling
I've read both frie anx graceling, and enjoyed them immensly. But this book was simply too much. It makes very little sense and feels jumbled and ruahed. I cohtinued reading hoping tat in the end things would click into place. Nothing ever did. It makes some sense, but I got a very Alice In Wonderland odd feel about this book that I simply didn't enjoy at all. A decent book, but no where near Fire or Graceling.
Ms. Cashore is a talented and amazing writer. This was my favorite book of the series so far. The story was so interesting with all the puzzles, ciphers, mazes, and mysteries. I love how she tied all the previous books and characters into this story. One of the best YA books i have read.
I did not like this book as much as the first two, it was slow at some parts and did not have enough of Bitterblue and Saf, but i have to say i still did not want the book to end. So ya, i still loved this book and i hope Kristen makes more.
It just didn't feel complete to me… WARNING: Spoilers Galore! * * * I feel like this book was *Almost* great. I’ve come to expect so much of Cashore’s characters. The way she develops her girls and brings them to womanhood has in the past been close to masterful. Even if I haven’t particularly loved a character *cough* Katsa *cough* I’ve very much respected their journey as a person. And I’ve enjoyed studying Cashore’s purpose in female driven writing. I haven’t been so drawn to watching an author develop a female theme across multiple books since my thesis on Virginia Woolf. And those were some fun times, let me tell you. So, don’t be disappointed when I say that one of my biggest issues was the romance. I know! That whole first paragraph was devoted to Women’s Studies and I gotta harp on the romance portion of the novel. But, the love triangle was just a big tease! I felt as though there was a lot of focus on Saf and Bitterblue’s relationship. Was Saf good? Bad? Bitterblue’s failing point? or saving grace? And it’s not as though I expect romance to be more important than the development of the female lead as a strong female. However, based on the previous two books in the series I was expecting the romance to play a defining role in Bitterblue’s development as a woman. At the very least a conclusion to the relationship would have shown if Saf was just her first sexual partner and first love? Or did he come back and prove to be the man who would grow up and stand tall beside Bitterblue as a grown woman. While I admit, I think Bitterblue (yes, Bitterblue is a living, breathing person to me. Don’t judge, Cashore is really that good with her characters.) wanted Saf to be “The One”…I didn’t. I would have found it hard to see Cashore reconcile the person Bitterblue had to become with the person she would have needed to be to end up with Saf. Maybe this is the reason for the open ending? Cashore’s character’s desires separated from the point of the plot? And now I need to move on to my heartbreak…Gideon. Was Gideon never a choice? Almost a choice? Her eventual husband? If I had to guess due to plot and theme trajectory Gideon had to be Bitterblue’s future mate. I have reasons: 1. He lost all his lands, thus freeing him up to be a citizen of Monsea. 2. He was the man Bitterblue turned to for the truth. The only one she trusted to be honest and to accept her honesty. 3. Katsa spurned him in Graceling. Cashore couldn’t spurn the man twice in one series right?! 4. Bitterblue was always feeling ‘warm’ or ‘enjoying’ things naturally with Gideon – there were definite foreshadowing elements of a deepening attraction! 5. That first scene, where she falls asleep on him as he takes the pins out of her hair. Swoon. Shows instinctive trust. I like that part best. Maybe I was too reliant on the model of the previous two books – but I really expected more resolution in the romance category. Not finding that resolution really hurt my satisfaction with the ending of the book. And finally, moving on to the rest of the novel…What was simultaneously amazing and frustrating about this novel was that the whole book felt like a stumble in the dark. At first I was confused, then annoyed, then I realized it mirrored the feelings of the citizens themselves (point? or happy accident?) The read was a heavy one. The situation Leck left his kingdom in was impossibly scarred. And Cashore is unflinching while dealing with the issues. No Graceling will appear on a white horse to save the day with a truth sensing ability. Beautifully it’s two normally gifted humans (Gideon and Bitterblue) who begin to model a relationship where they promise not to lie. Truly the best these people can do to put their lives back together – Perfection (and I think the final piece of growing up Bitterblue needed to do) would have been to choose Gideon as her mate. The lack of romantic choice left the story (saga really) feeling unfinished to me…Maybe Cashore is planning a 4th installment? Hara will flesh out in her role as Bitterblue’s sister. Gideon will finally land a girl. And [maybe] a baby for Katsa and Po? Hmm…that last one was probably asking for too much right? lol. Bitterblue is yet a softer character than even Fire and – especially – Katsa were. Bitterblue is the first female character Cashore has developed who was not dealing/blessed with a power. Instead she is only fighting the memory of one. Perhaps the hardest trick of all. Of all Cashore’s women Bitterblue is the most bare – the most defenseless. So utterly reliant on friends and fmaily. Truly a child (sheltered) for so much of the book. I missed seeing her exert more power on her own. To completel the transformation to Queen. Her power is her compassion. Her ability to consume and heal the grief of her people. If only the reader had more time to see the fruits and less time with the labor. Rating: 3.5/5 It just didn't feel complete to me…
This book is as good as the last two. The defiant bitterblue is nothing like i imagined her in graceling.. sh is even better. Thi book is a must read . Extremley creative and amzingly written anyone can faall for kristins amazing writing
I didn't think Cashore would be able to top Graceling and Fire, but Bitterblue blew that opinion to shreds. It took me a couple chapters to get into the book (mostly because it's been a while since I've read the other 2 books and my head is stuffed with homework readings) but when I got into it I read it in a single day. I just love how she ties in both Fire and Graceling, and like it says on the inside cover you don't have to have read the other 2 to read Bitterblue, but having read them just makes it all the more interesting. I definitely recommend this to anyone who read Graceling and Fire, and recommend it to all readers, especially for teens and up, as some of the subtle intrigue can be a little mystifying to younger readers. Overall though, a fantastic novel - 5+ out of 5 stars
This 3rd installment of the Graceling series is good but not as good as the first two. Most of the story revolves around Leck's legacy, Bitterblue his daughter and now Queen must try and mend her people. I'm glad I read it but still, the first two were the best !!
This book was much different than fire or graceling. I feel that nothing really happened since bitterblue was barely allowed to leave her castle. I really did enjoy the issues relating to gay rights, but I was surprised by how many of the original characters from other books ended up being homosexual.
Love love love this book, it's a great third companion novel, and I cannot wait to read the next one!
it is a really good book about a young girl having to be responsible and do the right thing even when love interveins
I cannot express to you how much I loved this book! It was amazing! I hadn't even know there was a sequel to Graceling, so when I found out about it I got it immediately, and I was not disappointed! I read Graceling twice and Fire twice. Kristin Cashore is one of the most fantasic writers I have ever known. I love everything she provides and i'm rarely disappointed with anything in her books. There is romance, suspense, heartbreak, anger, etc. You will experience every emotion while reading this book and you will fall in love with the characters just like with all her books! High recommend this!
I started reading the Graceling Trilogy almost by accident one day, i just needed something to read. What an exceptional find. I highly recomend all three books (Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue) to young adults as well as older adults if you are into a fantasy adventure/suspense/romance novel. These new type of "Heroes" are amazing, so much better "mythological super-human" than anything i have ever read. I'm hooked. I read all three in a week, i could not put it down, Ms. Cashore must write another one, she left me wanting more! I REALLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK TO ANYONE WHO ENJOYS HAVING AN ADVENTURE WHILE READING!!!
I hope she writes more this book was amazing!!!!!
Wonderfully original fiction
I found this book to be really good! It wasn't exactly fast-paced, but it was an overall great story. Kristen Cashore is a master story teller and I think she establishes that wonderfully in this tale of mystery, love, friendship, and psychopathy. I reccomend it to fans of Graceling because those characters (Katsa, Po, Giddon, Skye, etc) return better than ever!