Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realms trilogy has garnered deserved praise since the first book came out in 2008 from Harcourt. Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue combine quests and courtly intrigue, excitement and emotional resonance. Having recently finished the series, I use the next two posts to highlight some things Cashore does particularly well. Today, I focus mostly on the final volume, Bitterblue.
***Onward, there be spoilers!***
Although the series is beloved first and foremost for its powerful and deep-feeling heroines, a central figure across all three books is the villain Leck: a tyrannical king with magical manipulation skills. His voice makes listeners believe everything he says—about him, about themselves, about anything; a useful skill for a king who would get away with whatever he wants. Although Leck is killed in the climax of Book I (Graceling), he haunts the rest of the series. Book II (Fire) addresses his origins and, most interestingly, Book III explores the aftermath of his reign. Bitterblue takes place eight years after Leck’s death, but his decades of tyranny are still fresh in the minds and hearts of the people of Monsea.
This exploration of the aftermath fascinated me. Most series build up to the defeat of a villain, a sweeping final battle, or another key historic event for the story-world. The aftermath is often implied or briefly addressed in the concluding chapters or epilogue—and this is often the immediate aftermath, rather than the lingering effects, traumas, and struggles felt years later. What made Bitterblue so interesting was how it focused entirely on the aftermath: the memories and crimes from Leck’s reign that still affect the characters; the need to balance revealing past truths with the painful act of opening old wounds; and the lengths to which some people would go to move forward, even if it forces them to commit crimes nearly as costly as Leck’s own.
Instead of events building linearly to the climactic series end, the characters uncovered past events a little at a time in a compelling mystery. The first style of plot is like charging up a mountainside to get to a rewarding view. Bitterblue is more like archaeology, scraping away layers of history, memory, and deceit, revealing fragmented pieces that eventually yield a whole picture.
All of this allowed the book to tap into a sense of loss that, for me, underscores the best fantasy. As fantasy writers, we often face a strange tension: thematically speaking, we generally vouch for qualities like love, friendship, camaraderie, bravery, and sacrifice, but to portray those, fantasy is usually situated in a context of violence, war, rebellion, and tumult. Yes, that context generates action and excitement, but I find the best fantasy pays respect by acknowledging what is lost when those forces imbalance the world. Showing the cost of violence across many generations is a key strength of Bitterblue, and of deep fantasy on the whole.
Next time, I delve further into the non-linear series structure Cashore uses.