This is the third book in a loosely connected series. It doesn't have to be read in order, and requires no more background than what I'm about to tell you. In the first book, Graceling, some people have special abilities, called Graces, which may be magical or may be enhanced versions of real talents, such as acting or fighting. In Fire , set in a different part of the world, some people and animals, called monsters, are overwhelmingly, dangerously attractive and charismatic.

The link between the three, apart from the shared world, is a sadistic, psychopathic serial killer named Leck, Graced with mind control, who takes over a kingdom and rules it for 35 years in the manner you would expect, until he's defeated in Graceling. His ten-year-old daughter, Bitterblue, is installed as queen with a council of advisers to rule as regents until she's old enough to take over. In Bitterblue, she's about eighteen, and starts investigating what really happened to the kingdom during Leck's rule (unsurprisingly, no one wants to talk about it.) The book as a whole seems inspired by things like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, post-revolution Romania, etc.

This is hugely and admirably ambitious. As an allegory of personal and political trauma and recovery, it's largely successful. As a fantasy, and especially as a fantasy set in the same world as the other two books, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It doesn't read like a fantasy. It doesn't feel like a fantasy. The concepts and language are extremely modern, as in America right now, and don't match the Renaissance-ish time period. There is nothing Leck does with magic mind control that couldn't have been accomplished in non-magical ways. With minimal rewriting, the book could have been set in either an imaginary country in our world, or a completely different and more contemporary fantasy world.

I liked this the best of the three novels, but, as a much more ambitious work, it also had more glaring flaws. I didn't like the romance at all, though thankfully that's a relatively minor part of the plot. There was a lot of repetition of ideas, revelations, and plot points, making the book feel over-long and in need of editing. Bitterblue comes to essentially the same realizations repeatedly, when she only needs to do so once. There's no humor whatsoever - at one point a man turns up with the Grace of turning his head inside out. I laughed and laughed, and then realized that it was actually supposed to be horrifying, not funny. And the names continue to be terrible, such as "Gracelingian" as the name of the language and a man named Thigpen, which I can never not read as Pigpen.

Still, the strengths are quite strong. Bitterblue is a very sympathetic character. I rarely encounter novels on this subject at all, and considering how hard the subject is, it's pretty well-done. Oh, and there are several important gay and lesbian characters in the supporting cast. Warning for disturbing material appropriate to the subject matter, including sexual violence, child harm, and mass murder.

Spoilers are enciphered )

Bitterblue

My favorite novel on the subject of personal and political trauma and healing is this: Where She Was Standing, by Maggie Helwig. It's not fantasy.
I recently read a fantasy novel which was set in a Europe-esque landscape, with swords and bows but (unless I'm forgetting something) no firearms. They had the printing press and herbal birth control, but no antibiotics. People knew the concept of a republic, apparently based on theoretical writings, but actual governments were hereditary monarchies.

Given the ye olde setting, I was jarred to see characters use the phrase "mental health" and mean exactly what I would mean by it, and also the word "process" in the sense of "to process one's emotions." Those were the ones which jumped out at me, but there was enough in the language and concepts known and believed by the characters which was not merely modern, but distinctively modern, that between that and the thematic elements I ended up feeling that I was reading an allegory, not a fantasy. (Allegory is not a dirty word. It is a perfectly legitimate artistic form.)

The book, by the way, is Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue. I thought it was very ambitious and largely successful. But it struck me as an allegory of recovery from personal and political abuse and totalitarianism, not a fantasy on the same theme. I am not using "allegory" to mean "preachy," or anything else negative. I mean that the world of the book did not read as a fantasy world, but as a stand-in for our own. You don't need magical mind-control to be a brainwasher. It was the pervasive use of extremely modern concepts and phrases that made me feel that way.

Do any of you ever notice that sort of thing? What type and amount of modern language or concepts is invisible, what is jarring, and what tips the book into feeling like it isn't truly meant to be historical or fantastical at all?
Excellent characterization and an original take on some old ideas allow this YA fantasy to overcome Cashore’s prose style, which is so plain and flat that I occasionally stopped reading for a moment, overcome with vain longing for just one elegantly turned sentence. But the suspenseful plot and my investment in the characters quickly drew my eyes back to the page.

My full review of Graceling, at Green Man Review.
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