Trauma and Recovery: A Fantasy about Recovery and Reconciliation

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

An analysis of Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, the somewhat sequel to Graceling and companion/sequel to Fire.  For more about the complicated intertext/marketing relationship between these three novels, see my earlier post here.


Bitterblue is a beautiful book and one that I believe is far more complex than either of its companion texts.  In the traditional storytelling sense, Bitterblue is the story that takes place after the “happily ever after.” At the end of Graceling, Katsa has killed Leck, protected Po’s secret and carried Bitterblue across the world to ensure her rightful place on the Monsean throne.  At the conclusion of Fire, Fire marries Brigan and adopts her daughter, King Nash and his armies defeat the rebellious Lords and repells their armies and Leck is dropped into a giant fissure in the earth, never to bother Fire or her friends again.  At the end of both of these novels, happily ever after reigns.  However, Bitterblue is about what comes next: the recovery of a nation that had been ruled by a madman. The novel traces through the complexities of recovery for a nation that has been led to ruin but also the emotional and psychological effects suffered by those closest to Leck and his administration.

Leck is possibly the most terrifying villain invented by an author that I have ever read. In the world of Graceling, certain people are born with special powers. These people are marked by their two different colored eyes. Graces are variable from useless (rotating completely around at the waist), to practical (cooking, balance, awesome at math, photographic memory), to artistic, (beautiful singing, sculpting) to the more mystical (predicting the future, predicting the weather, reading minds). Katsa’s power is that of survival: she can run faster, go without sleep longer, survive with less food and water than others and has incredible instincts that keep her alive when all others would have died.

Leck’s power lies in the more mystical realm: no matter what he says, people believe him. It comes very close to the power of compulsion (as used in The Wheel of Time and The Vampire Diaries), or various forms of mind control, except Leck doesn’t seem to have to exert any of his own power in order to be able to control others.  He says something and those around him have no choice but to accept it as truth.  His Grace lies somewhere in his voice, which Fire describes as grating and painful to hear.

This power allows Leck to lie with impunity, as he does when he murders the king and queen of Monsea days after they declare him their adopted heir. Leck’s powers take on incredibly terrifying powers the more they are explained: he tells people that are not tired, and they cease being tired.  He tells subordinates that their injuries do not hurt and those soldiers are able to perform their duties despite broken bones.  Leck uses these abilities to manipulate all those around him as well as to “experiment” on animals and people, cutting them open and sewing them back together, all the while telling the victims they are not in pain and telling the healers they were the ones who caused the injuries in the first place.

As a villain, Leck is despicable. In the domestic sense, he is described as an abusive husband and father, hurting Bitterblue’s mother then telling her that she is not hurt, he did not hit her, that she fell and hurt herself. The very fact that his victims have no choice but to believe him makes him even more insidious. The strength exhibited by Ashen and Bitterblue after years of this abuse, clinging to the grounding concepts of math and cyphers to help them grasp at their memories in order to escape Leck is yet another example of Cashore’s strong female characters.

When it comes to his immediate community, Leck is also a sociopath who enjoys torturing animals and people and has pedophiliac tastes for children, especially little girls. His journals depict his ongoing obsession with performing medical experiments on women and young girls, many of whom are stolen for him from surrounding estates by Lords and other nobility. He writes graphic descriptions of the tortures he inflicts on others, including his wife, which includes ordering his advisers to rape women and to enjoy it: no one in this scenario is capable of resisting. He meditates for months on when and how he will kill those that work for him. He is frustrated by his inability to force artists to his will: noting that when he tries to use his power on them, many lose their ability to produce art at all, leading to their deaths.  Within Leck City, hundreds fall victim to the whims of a mad, serial killer.

On a national and international level, Leck is a terrible dictator.  It is possible to trace inspiration for Leck to various evildoers.  The most obvious example is Hitler, a man with incredible powers of rhetoric and propaganda who took over a nation through the power of his voice. While there are very few racial discriminations in the Graceling realm, Leck does attempt to eliminate all mind-reading Gracelings from Monsea, since they are the only ones who can really break free of his spell. Like the Jews from Germany, Graceling children are smuggled out of Monsea and sent to the nation of Leinid, where Gracelings are not considered property of the kings.

Like other dictators, Leck took what he wanted from the population, often confiscating property without reimbursment or even any records of what he stole.  Further, after Leck’s death, it is difficult to tell exactly what has been taken, since Leck would often tell lies and manipulate the truth.  People are afraid to speak up about what they have lost, unsure of who in the new Queen’s administration is interested or able to help them.  As Queen Bitterblue laments, “Leck is dead.  But if Leck is dead, why isn’t it over?”  For many in Monsea, the happily ever after promised by fairy tales doesn’t come simply with the death of the evil King.  The happy ending here is far more complex.

Part of the difficulty for Queen Bitterblue in putting her nation back together is there was never a war. When a nation is in the midst of recovering from a war, it seems a pattern of national mourning and recovery is built in to the process of clearing out the rubble, honoring the dead and helping to ease the pain of those who were the victims of those in power.   For the people of Monsea, even for those castle administrators who worked closely with (under the power of) Leck, his death thousands of miles away did not provide the kind of closure and answers needed to begin the healing process.  Leck’s removal from power was done at a distance, leaving many to question what had really changed when Bitterblue took the crown.

In response to this ongoing struggle, Bitterblue eventually establishes the Council of Truth and Stories, which feels derived from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed after the dissolution of Apartheid. Many of the members of her administration, including her closest advisers had done terrible things under Leck’s spell, and while the claim of “just following orders” rings even truer when it comes to a mind-controlling dictator, they have also done terrible things after Leck has been eliminated, trying to suppress the recovery of truth, pressuring Bitterblue to pardon all crimes committed during Leck’s reign and keeping her so busy that she would not have time to notice that they were lying to her about the state of the kingdom. The Council of Truth and Stories provides those who wish it a place to come forward and have their losses, their grief and their experiences recorded and substantiated.  The question of reparations to those from whom Leck stole is still an open question at the end of the novel, as is the punishments for those under-cabinet members who have helped to suppress the truth during Bitterblue’s reign.

Unlike the other two novels, Bitterblue concludes on a heavy note of work to be done.  In this way, Cashore acknowledges that very nature of truth and recovery is deep and difficult, often bitter and sad, and that it can not be simplified or reduced to a series of steps that fits everyone.  The appearance of Fire at the end of the book helps to remind the reader that the story did not end just because the novel did: Fire is an old woman, still haunted by her own demons and fears, many of them drawn from her guilt over her father’s nation-corrupting actions.  She feels that despite distances and customs, she and Bitterblue are sisters, both forced to atone for the sins of the father in a long, terrifying journey of forgiveness and recovery.  And in that way, Cashore provides her readers with an ending that is far more satisfying then any “happily ever after” could be.

Rebekah Fitzsimmons is a graduate student at UF and will be teaching a special topics course on YA dystopian lit in the fall. 

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

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