I loved reading 'Bitterblue' , loved it even more than reading 'Fire'. It is very important for me to say that, because I had been extremely hesitant before finally picking it up months after it had been delivered to my postbox. The decision to read a sequel to a story you believed to be perfect as it was is tough, so tough ... and irreversible: You cannot unread a book - especially the parts that bug you will stick like superglue to your otherwise forgetful synapses - same as you cannot unwatch the movie version of a favorite once its visuals have invaded your mind.
To illustrate my point: I will always be sorry that I was too curious to ignore what happened after 'Twilight', I am not sure if I ever will read 'Linger' (I own the hardcover), and I had absolutely no interest in seeing anyone impersonate Elizabeth Bennett on screen until Keira Knightley came along.
Now, the birth of 'Bitterblue', which I preordered as soon as it was possible, took long and was laced with rumors and speculations: Did the author suffer writers block and was forced to scrape together something unmentionably bad just to fulfill a three-books-contract she had optimistically signed aeons before? Was it true that Cashore's editors demanded that she started from scratch, because her original draft had been unreadable? A bunch of severely disappointed and apologetically outraged reviews by Goodreads friends whose views on books I value fueled the already crackling unease: ... a confusing plot, a lack of drive, unengaging characters, a bittersweet, but unmoving romance were mentioned and - what shocked me most - it looked like Katsa's and Po's hard-won love would fall victim to unpassable differences in opinion or to lack of honesty with each other.
Luckily I overcame my apprehension, attributed more weight to the opinions of the readers who proclaimed themselves to be awed and enchanted and the author to have grown as a writer. I hesitatingly started, I got hooked and I kept reading and savoring. I don't mean to say that there was anything wrong with the negative reviews or that I should be weary of their creators' warnings in the future. How many precious hours have been saved, because to-the-point explanations of a novel's drawbacks convinced me not to spend my time or my money. And how many gems have I discovered just because lovingly worded praise on Goodreads made me want a certain book desperately inspite of its uninspiring cover or its boring official description. The discrepancy just shows with vehemence that there is no reader whose reaction to books exactly mirrors mine. In the midst of all the precious advice and the pro and contra of well-written reviews I have to make the decision whether to read or not to read on my own after all - filtering the given information .... and ... trusting my guts.
For me 'Bitterblue' turned out to be great fantasy with great characters - in my opinion Katsa and Po were just ... well ... Katsa and Po -, some mystery, some romance and an extremely captivating study of a country that has to heal and rebuild itself after getting rid of a destructive, psychopathic dictator. You would think eight years are a lot of time - plenty to restructure the government, to allow the people to breathe out and enfold - but Cashore's tale effectively shows they are next to nothing. After having been freed from a cruel, poisonous and unpredictable ruler people still have damaged bodies, damaged souls, twisted minds, reduced families, built-up fears, unspeakable memories, strange self-imposed regulations and a lot of mistrust.
Queen Bitterblue's band of oldish graceling advisors, her struggle with them and their hesitation to talk about the past and her question whether starting out with a young untried court would not serve her county better reminded me of my own country's last post-war era: The administration in the then recovering Germany had to work, the school system had to go on, things had to be minded asnd supervised. For those practical considerations a lot of the teachers who - whether out of conviction or conformation - had taught kids the Nazi doctrine during Hitler's reign, kept on teaching after the war and a lot of the administrative staff in the cities - the same who probably were responsible for i.e. sealing deportation letters in their former districts or seizing jewish property - served the new aministration. For somehow their expertise was needed; same as the experienced teachers were considered to be necessary to keep the crumbling civilization afloat. That is unsettlingly erie, in my opinion. No wonder most of the population prefered not to discuss their personal war histories and those of their next of kin during the 40s, 50s and 60s. They chose to ignore the past and put all their strength into building the future and getting physically comfortable instead. Consequently there remain a lot of scars under the surface - even after a handful of decades.
Bitterblue, who had been a little - and because of her mother's feeble efforts partly sheltered - girl during King Leck's reign of manipulative terror and abuse, experiences a similar kind of unseen eeriness first hand, being an unsure and powerless puppet operating on half-knowledge at first. But she grows as a personality, as a woman and as a ruler. And that is a beautiful and exhilarating thing to behold - her personal sacrifices, throwbacks and the sometimes painfully slow progress nonewithstanding.
Thank you, Kristin Cashore, for taking that special amount of time to construct a special story featuring a special - yet ordinary (="graceless") - heroine, who amazed me against all odds.