By Casey Wilson
I have literally started this entry ten different times now. There’s so much I want to say about Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue and its preceding novels Graceling and Fire that I genuinely don’t know where to begin. So I’m going to start elsewhere. Outside of Cashore’s novels, outside of YA lit, outside of books entirely. I’m going to start with Farscape.
Farscape is a sci-fi television series that went off the air in 2004. The details aren’t important – though you should definitely check it out, since it is smart and emotional and often completely bazoo – but for one: In the pilot episode, the lead John Crichton looks at Aeryn Sun and tells her, “You can be more.” He’s far from home and barely knows her at all; she’s a soldier who lives her life by orders. And yet. “You can be more.”
Those are the stories that matter to me. The ones where a character learns that she is more than just her circumstance, that she has agency and power all her own. When I look back across the books and movies and television shows that have meant the most to me, that thread is always there. Alias. Doctor Who. Moulin Rouge. The Lord of the Rings. They’re all about someone saying, “I can be more.”
And so are Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue.
Graceling tells the story of Katsa, a girl “Graced” with killing. Her particular Grace proves useful to her uncle, the cruel King of the Middluns, and she grows up his enforcer, punishing those who disobey him. But the older she gets, the more she chafes under his control, and with the help of a new friend, she learns to question not just her King but her own Grace. I’m teaching Graceling for the first time in the fall; I can’t wait for to dig into these questions of agency and identity with my students.
The companion novel Fire follows a similar path. Fire is the last human “Monster”, revered for her beauty, feared for her influence over people’s minds. She’s scared of her past and her future, until she learns to use her power to help her struggling kingdom grow stronger. Fire’s story is the closest to my heart; the nods she’s given in Bitterblue are among my favorite moments in the novel.
Like Katsa and Fire, Bitterblue’s power is a gift of birth. She is a queen, with all the privilege that entails. But she is young and a little lost, unsure how to heal the wounds her father caused. Once she begins to leave the confines of her office full of papers to sign, though, she realizes that no matter how small she feels, she can help her kingdom be better than before.
None of the three girls are able to go on this journey alone. All of them are surrounded by a complex set of characters with their own struggles. It makes the world feel bigger, and you get the sense that even the most minor characters could support a book all their own. In fact, Cashore has a gift for balancing the fantasy of her world with the characters that inhabit it, making both seem inevitable. The world gives birth to the characters, and the characters give birth to the world.
I don’t want to give away too many of the details about the choices that Katsa, Fire, and Bitterblue make in the course of their respective stories. The novels are richly detailed, and part of the pleasure they offer is getting lost in them as those details unfold. Each decision they make transforms them and pushes them into new directions. But what I will always cherish about their transformations is that they do not become different than they were before. Instead, they take their identities and their pasts and decide to become more than they used to be. More than they ever thought they could be.
There’s a power in that, and it’s one that Cashore captures beautifully in all three novels. They stand alone well, if you choose to read them individually. But I think there’s a better way, because I have a sneaking suspicion that if you read all three books together, they’ll become something more, too.
Casey is a PhD student teaching “Writing About the Young Adult Bestseller” in the fall.