Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Kristin Cashore likes to torment me: this is how I know she loves me back.

Bittleblue takes place ten years after Graceling and even makes ties to Fire, the chronological 'first' book in this series of stand alone novels.  Bitterblue is the Queen (who for infuriating reasons unknown to me was always redundantly called 'Lady Queen' as if this dual honorific helped separate her from all the Mr Queens and Gentlemen Queens that aren't in the book) who inherits the shambles or her father's kingdom.  While her father has passed away, undoing his legacy--the mind job he did on the nation's psyche--is a real and present task.  Sadly, that's it.  That's our conflict; nothing more.  

I didn't think Fire, had that much to go on so how does Cashore fare with equally weak conflict in Bitterblue?  Much, much better, yet she still leaves us wanting.  

Bitterblue is born into a position of extreme power yet refuses to exert herself in anyway for fear of drawing comparisons to her father who abused the obscene amount of power he wielded.  (This has become Cashore's shtick: powerful, rash, young women who want nothing more than to avoid the male family shadow lurking over them.  Katsa didn't want to be her uncle--yet another bad guy king--Fire was afraid of being her father--a really, really bad guy who was advisor to the king--and now Bitterblue whose father is still, in my mind the granddaddy of bad guys.)  The conflict is weak in light of the character's Cashore has created; this is a compliment.  The uniqueness of this problem lies in the character's the author brings back rather than those created in Bitterblue.  

There is not a situation of intrigue that Po, a graceling with an extraordinary ability and a very good friend of the Queen's, can't solve.  In the beginning of Bitterblue Po is not around and I thought that was the only way the novel could work.  He eventually works himself in the story but had to be sick and delusional the entire time or risk ruining any tension created.  (As was evidenced by his only moment of 'health' at the end when he finds Bitterblue's crown with ridiculous ease.)  

The other returning character that makes the story difficult to countenance is a dead guy: Bitterblue's father.  The previous king's grace (i.e. magical power) and subsequent abuse of power is what Bitterblue is self-tasked with eradicating.  Even dead, the past king is still strong enough to warrant top billing as a villain, but it's hard to concretely identify what is being fought against and why, without a tangible figure head.  A lot of powerful people are doing absurd things in an effort absolve themselves of crimes committed under the past king's influence.  It's even harder (and more vague) to resolve such conflict.

The onus of cleaning up the previous king's mess falls to Bitterflue as she is our heroine.  Again, her problems stem more from Graceling than the novel that bears her name.  Her uncle, Po's father and the only good guy king in the entire world, left her in charge at the age of eight.  He's not one for international politics so he gives her a hug and a kiss, 'Holla if you need me,' and I'm out.  At age eight… 

Her top four advisors and indeed everyone in a position of power were retained from her father's rule.  Major fucking oversight considering her dad ruled for thirty-fives years and was the scourge of the world from day one…  So terrified of being called daddy's little girl, (and with good reason) Bitterblue is content to drown in her own ignorance and bad decision making.  As soon as I realized Po wasn't going to be around to solve every issue that arose, I kept waiting for her to exert her power as an absolute monarch.  Even if she made a bad decision I wanted just a little bit of backbone and her to say, 'Look Bitches, I'm the Queen.  This is how shit's gon' be…'  She finds administrators working against her--the same ones more than once--and they don't even get a slap on the wrist.  They are left to their own device, which is undermining Bitterblue, because she never thinks to have someone put away for a bit let alone 'off with his head.'  There is a strong undercurrent of Bitterblue's public perception, which is true for any ruler especially so for her due to her father, but it's not like she's living in the Twitter age and I continually marveled at her lack of a propaganda machine even when she was working with the people who were deceiving her.  Having a near inept character execute a weak story is not only difficult to convey as convincing, but equally difficult to keep interesting.  

So what happens in the book where Bitterblue tries to correct the wrongs of her father and establish a true understanding of her people and her land?  Well; she starts a romance with a commoner, she gets beat up, and she spends a lot of time in her library trying to break codes.  (The latter of which had huge potential and I kept waiting for something to come of it.)  It's not as if from the first day she decided she was tired of being a puppet Queen she starts whooping ass.  One could presumably write a story around that.  Nor is the reconciling of her family history through her mother's encrypted embroidery and her father's journals--encrypted from a language no one else speaks (can't make this up)--connecting to her people's suffering and why people are manipulating her the launching point for the narrative.  The infrastructure for a great story is there, there are many many elements to build on.  Somehow, nothing materialized.  

There is no real ending or resolution as their is no real conflict.  External, internal, or otherwise.  The story just kinda peters out with a resounding, soft, wet, 'splat.'  It's not necessary to give up the endgame stakes on page one, but if you're not building toward that point you do need to find away to keep your finger on the 'high tension anxiety' button at all times.    

There is a great story in-between this novel's covers only I didn't feel it was told very well.  Many of the problems stem the world she's created and past characters.  (Po can't be in a story unless he's a primary character.  It even felt like Cashore knew this as the times he was present he felt a bit 'neutered' from where we left him in Graceling.  My biggest contention with her 'world' is in the connection of The Dells to The Seven Kingdoms and the inexplicable notion of gracelings in one and 'monsters' in the other.)  Cashore humanized Bitterblue's father which was not only a mammoth accomplished but also a missed opportunity for Bitterblue to be active in her own story.  Is the book bad?  Absolutely not; I could talk about it ad nauseum.  Point me in the direction of the correct forum and I'm all over it.  Only Bitterblue isn't very strong either.  I don't need Aslan fighting The White Witch in terms of conflict and resolution, but upon finishing a novel I do need a sense that something was accomplished.  

Kristin Cashore likes to torment me: this is how I know she loves me back.

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