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 )


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.

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