No fairy tale ending for the Seven Kingdoms
Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue is a big book in every sense of the word. It’s the lead book on Penguin Young Reader’s spring list, and it weighs in at nearly 550 pages. Most importantly, though, Bitterblue deals with hefty themes and emotions, which not only leave an impact on readers, but took a toll on the author herself.
This is the third in Cashore’s critically acclaimed Seven Kingdoms series for teens—after the bestsellers Graceling and Fire—and it’s hard for the author to leave this fictional world behind. “It’s actually really sad,” she says by phone from her home near Boston. “I’m having a hard time letting Bitterblue go, and I feel like I really need to, because in order to have any equilibrium whatsoever during a book release, you need to kind of unhook yourself from the book. But I don’t want to let her go, and I feel bad that she doesn’t need me anymore.”
It’s no wonder that Cashore has grown fond of her title character. Her novels, although set in a complex, politically charged fantasy realm, are primarily about the characters that inhabit this world. “The books I love are the ones where I can really believe in the characters and get into their stories and their relationships,” she says. Some of her characters—like Katsa (the heroine of Graceling) and the title character of Fire—are “graced” with special gifts. In Katsa’s case, it’s the Grace of killing. In Fire’s case, it’s the ability to read minds—a trait Cashore admits was especially difficult to wrap her head around as a writer.
Although she is of royal lineage, Bitterblue has no particular Grace, and that’s what made her both a pleasure and a relative ease for Cashore to write. “She doesn’t have these amazing superhuman skills, and consequently I felt like I could relate to her a bit more,” Cashore says. “I’m not saying I’m very like her, but it was just easier to get into her mindset than it was with Katsa or especially with Fire.”
"The books I love are the ones where I can really believe in the characters and get into their stories and their relationships."
Although Bitterblue is not graced with any magical powers, she does have a strong moral center, an unquenchable curiosity and a desire to right injustices. This becomes especially important when she—as a young ruler still counseled by the advisers to her late father, the evil King Leck—begins to look outside the walls of her castle and ask questions about her subjects: the people who still tell tales of Leck’s reign of terror in the pubs each evening, the people who are still suffering from the atrocities Leck committed years before. Often taking personal risks and setting out in disguise in order to escape her sequestered existence, Bitterblue becomes more and more horrified as she learns of the man her father was and of the ruin he left behind.
Cashore—who first introduced Leck as a character in Graceling, which is set nine years before Bitterblue—admits that she was taken aback by the dark directions Bitterblue takes. “When I wrote Graceling,” she says, “Leck was just my villain. I never realized what I was getting myself into. Now I feel like I wrote Graceling and Fire to work myself toward Bitterblue. Gradually I realized that this has to be the book where this girl deals with this horrible person who, until this book, was actually kind of fun to write. It was not even slightly fun to write the prologue in Bitterblue or any of the sections told from Leck’s point of view. It was very oppressive, and depressing, and upsetting to write.” Leck’s journal entries, in particular, were difficult for Cashore to write and will be difficult for many readers to read; Cashore’s willingness to deal with atrocities head-on, however, is what makes the novel both powerful and relevant to the real world.
Bitterblue is a mystery of sorts, as Bitterblue tries to uncover and then repair both her own personal history and the history of her people. It’s also a reunion, as favorite characters—particularly Katsa and her companion Po—turn up repeatedly, much to readers’ delight. But, as in Cashore’s previous novels, Bitterblue is not a typical fairy tale with a happy ending. When asked about this, Cashore admits, “I had to tell the story how it happened, and I hope people won’t be too disappointed. I don’t love conventional, tidy endings as a reader. This is a story that happened; I wasn’t as in control as people think I might have been.”
Readers who are disappointed at where Cashore leaves things at the end of Bitterblue, however, can take heart. According to Cashore, “there’s a very good chance that my readers will be seeing these characters again.” But not in Cashore’s next novel—which she says will not be a fantasy. She feels confident, however, that readers will see more of the Seven Kingdoms fantasy world—and some of their favorite characters—in at least one more book.
But what about readers who, like Cashore herself, feel a sense of loss when they finish immersing themselves in Bitterblue’s world? Cashore has plenty of suggestions for fans who are looking for some great novels to tide them over until the next Seven Kingdoms adventure. She recommends Megan Whalen Turner’s Attolia series, Melina Marchetta’s books (both her fantasy novels and her contemporary stories) and the novels of Diana Wynne Jones, Tamora Pierce and Philip Pullman. Cashore also advises readers to look up the old-fashioned adventure novels of Mary Stewart: “They’re dated now, but a woman always ends up in some romantic part of the world, and there’s mystery and adventure and romance, and they’re just a lot of fun.”
Mystery, adventure and romance are also in store for readers of Cashore’s Seven Kingdoms novels, along with a healthy dose of political intrigue, moral complexity and characters that readers will love getting to know.