Retro Review: Graceling / Fire / Bitterblue

Graceling

Gollancz (2008)

ISBN: 9780575084629

This may be the first debut fantasy I’ve read that I wholeheartedly enjoyed. Kristin Cashore has managed to create a fresh plot, interesting and endearing characters, and a rollicking and romantic read.

Katsa lives in a world where certain individuals have a Grace. Graced persons have a specialist skill at which they excel with little or no training or effort. Graces can be frivolous or highly useful, and a Graced person always has two different coloured eyes. In Katsa’s world, the Graced are not necessarily loved – they are different, sometimes feared, and do not fit easily into society. The king has first refusal on their service; if he chooses to hold them, the Graceling becomes part of the royal retinue, no matter their beginnings. If he does not want them, the Graceling must eke out their own way in the world.

Katsa is King Randa’s niece, and she has a killing Grace. Despite her youth, her uncle uses her to intimidate and threaten, and to remove obstacles in his way. But Katsa has a mind of her own, and a strong sense of justice. With her cousin Raffin, and other like minded folk, they work to temper the harshness of Randa’s rule. And when Katsa comes across a strange kidnapping in another realm, it sets in motion a chain of events that could topple kings.

Cashore has produced a terrific story of difference and power. With robust, well rounded characters whose journeys are tangled and challenging, Graceling is elegantly written with strong themes and a story that is new and outside the usual high fantasy fare, taking the genre to a new level.

Fire

Kristin Cashore

Gollancz (2009)

ISBN: 9780575085121

Kristin Cashore is the hottest new fantasy writer of the decade. Following up on the success of her debut novel Graceling comes Fire, a new adventure prequelling Graceling by some decades, but nevertheless containing the same wonderful worldbuilding, captivating characterization and superb storytelling that held us spellbound in the first book.

In her own words, the author describes Fire in this way:

“Beautiful creatures called monsters live in the Dells. Monsters have the shape of normal animals: mountain lions, dragonflies, horses, fish. But the hair or scales or feathers of monsters are gorgeously colored – fuchsia, turquoise, sparkly bronze, iridescent green – and their minds have the power to control the minds of humans.

Seventeen-year-old Fire is the last remaining human-shaped monster in the Dells. Gorgeously monstrous in body and mind but with a human appreciation of right and wrong, she is hated and mistrusted by just about everyone, and this book is her story.”

Cashore has a talent for spinning a yarn that is unmatched by the plethora of fantasy authors out there right now, teaming this skill with an ability to write powerful characters that the reader falls in love, or hate, with, making the book impossible to put down. Protagonist Fire is flawed and different, but her presence on the page is uncontestable. Her believability and inherent passion drives the plot and mean any reader will embrace both her and her story as she battles not only a world where she doesn’t belong, but the monsters, both real and figurative, of her own past while she fights to forge a future for herself and her nation.

“Fire’s ability to rule her father had depended on his trust… she burst into quite authentic tears that came from the confusion of conflicting emotions. Distress a thte sight of his blistered skin, his blackened, bleeding fingernails, and the terrible smell she hadn’t anticipated. Terror of losing his love now that she’d compelled him to hurt himself. Terror of losing his trust, and with it her power to compel him ever to do it again. She threw herself sobbing onto the pillows of his bed. ‘I wanted to see what it was like to hurt someone,’ she spat at him, ‘like you always tell me to. And now I know, and I’m horrified with both of us, and I’ll never do it again, not to anyone.’”

While both Graceling and Fire are marketed to a Young Adult audience, I’m a little reluctant to recommend it as suitable for under fifteens, given the sexuality of the young protagonist in both books. Fire apparently becomes sexually active (by choice) quite young, and I’m not certain this element of the story is essential to its success, which says to me that it is not quite appropriate to a younger audience. That said, Fire also examines some interesting gender issues and also some elements of adolescence that are rarely examined in this type of novel, which is a surprising change.

Fire held me from start to finish, had me in tears at times and smiling at others. If Cashore continues to get better with each book, she will be at the top of the fantasy heap for a very long time to come.

Bitterblue

Graceling, book 3

Kristin Cashore

Gollancz (May 2012)

ISBN: 9780575097186

Taking up a number of years after the events of Graceling, Bitterblue follows the passage of the title character, Queen Bitterblue, as she learns how to heal her broken country. Readers of the series will remember Bitterblue from the story told in Graceling, and the events that occurred some decades earlier in the “sequel/prequel” Fire are also important to the story told here. That said, Bitterblue is one of that most rare of fantasy novels that can stand in isolation, despite being a significant part of an overarching story.

In Bitterblue, the Queen, just 18 and surrounded by old men who have been telling her for the past eight years how to run her damaged country, begins to realise there is a lot more she needs to know about her palace, her people, and her nation. Bitterblue begins to sneak out into the city at night, trying to learn more about the secrets being kept from here. She soon meets two thieves who are more than what they first appear, and gradually Bitterblue’s world and knowledge expand and she starts to understand her past, and the legacy left to her by her father the king.

Cashore is a gifted storyteller – her ability to maintain narrative engagement over several hundred pages, combined with her talent for writing gloriously flawed and believable characters whose behaviours and growth are plausible and wholly immersive, makes reading her work both easy and infinitely pleasurable. It was truly difficult to put the book down, despite its bulk! The character of Bitterblue is heartbreaking and astounding by turns. Dealing with immense power that she understands so poorly, but underpinned by a fragile strength of spirit and intelligence, the beginning of her journey from sheltered queen to competent ruler is beautifully drawn. The secondary characters loom large and small in the background, fleshed out in their own right and with a strong sense of person and place, completing the tapestry Cashore has built.

I have read both Graceling and Fire and while this book is somewhat longer than either of the first two, the elements which made them such fantastic reads are still present. It is particularly interesting to note that all three books have young women as protagonists, surrounded by male and female characters and with interesting gender and sexuality comments presented.

As I noted previously, Bitterblue could be read in isolation from the first two books, which themselves are able to be read individually – however, for the best reading experience, reading in publication (not chronological) order, would provide the best journey, with the characters and narrative building solidly across the three books.

I highly recommend this series, and this book, to anyone looking for a character driven fantasy, particularly if you are interested in the examination of a story that has at its heart young female characters learning how to deal with life and the inheritance of power sullied by madness.

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