Bitterblue cover
Cover illustration
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.


by Kristin Cashore

With the glut of YA fantasy series published in recent years, the chances that a single series has to rise above the others are slim indeed. Fortunately, with this latest installment, the Seven Kingdoms series (Graceling, BCCB 1/09, and Fire, BCCB 3/10) accomplishes that feat and much more. Framing her interrogations of strength, virtue, love, and even narrative within a compelling and brilliantly developed tale, Cashore manages to create a story that transcends the genre with its emotional and philosophical weight.

Eight years ago, a dagger through the mouth brought King Leck’s tyrannical rule over Monsea to an abrupt end, and his estranged daughter Bitterblue, only a child, was crowned queen. Now eighteen, the young queen is still floundering, trying to help her country recover from the decades-long reign of her madman father, an epoch in which Leck used his mind-controlling Grace (a superhuman ability) to commit atrocious acts and keep his people in a constant state of mental fog and ignorance. Buried under mysteriously endless paperwork and with the distinct impression that her advisors are hiding something from her, Bitterblue ventures out into her kingdom disguised as a commoner only to discover that in the poverty-stricken streets of the city, the effects of Leck’s cruelty are still felt. Even more devastating is her realization that the “forward-thinking” policies of her advisors and the supposed truths she has adhered to in the recent years are doing more harm than good.

The book masterfully builds upon events in Graceling and Fire while offering a fresh perspective through Bitterblue, a young woman whose desire to effectively rule her country is complicated by her innocence and naïveté. Whereas the other installments are steeped in heady romance and tightly plotted action, the tension here centers primarily on the destructive secrecy that has flourished in Leck’s wake, both in the royal court and among its subjects. Fans of the first two volumes may initially be surprised by the slower pace, but the political intrigue eventually leads to a revelation so shocking and tragic that it launches the tale from mere political thriller into an examination of the power of story as both a road to redemption and an obstacle to truth. The cast of supporting characters (including returning fan favorites) is superbly developed, while the various subplots, particularly Bitterblue’s romantic entanglement with a street thief, allow readers a more complete picture of the young queen and the challenges that face her.

Taken as a whole, the series examines an intriguing intersection of gender expectations, personal autonomy, and political power. Each book features a powerful female protagonist that defies traditional stereotypes of femininity while simultaneously subverting the trope of the kick-butt heroine. Just as each finds her power from a different source, the women are similarly varied in their vulnerability, and their choices tend to reflect both aspects of their character. Of the three, Bitterblue will perhaps be the most relatable to teen readers, as she lacks the supernatural abilities of Graceling’s Katsa and Fire’s Fire and must use only her will and intellect while reckoning with her demons.

Additionally, this installment seamlessly ties together themes of storytelling and narrative introduced in the previous books, leaving readers with plenty to ponder in regards to the truths we choose to acknowledge and those we ignore. Regardless of what they end up taking away from it, however, fans will find themselves thinking of Bitterblue and her efforts to right the wrongs of the past long after they leave the Seven Kingdoms.

--Kate Quealy-Gainer, Assistant Editor

Bitterblue cover

Cover image from Bitterblue ©2012 by Natalie C. Sousa.  Used by permission of Dial Books for Young Readers.

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This page was last updated on May 1, 2012.