The next thing I know, I'm throwing Father's papers into the fire. Running back to the table, gathering them in armfuls, tripping across the rug, throwing them on the flames, screaming as I watch Father's strange, beautiful writing disappear. Screaming it out of existence. I trip over Mama's embroidery, her sheets with their cheerful little rows of embroidered stars, moons, castles; cheerful, colourful flowers and keys and candles. I hate the embroidery. It's a lie of happiness that Father convinces her is true. I drag it to the fire.
I lingered over Kristin Cashore's Bitterblue (2012), for two reasons. The first reason was that I wanted to savour it; it's the concluding part in a loosely-linked series, whose first two volumes I adored for the crystalline clarity of their prose and the rich humanity of their characters. Bitterblue, as the title would suggest, takes up the story of the young princess whom the dynamic duo Katsa and Po saved from her abusive father, Leck, in Graceling. Eight years on, Bitterblue is learning to be a queen and a woman, and she and her people alike are trying - not entirely successfully - to move on from the horrors of Leck's reign. It's a compelling and at times difficult tale, and in retrospect it seems unsurprising that we've had to wait almost three years for it. (Spoiler: it was worth it!)
My second reason for dallying with the novel was wrapped up in the fact that Cashore writes the sort of stories that reward time spent on them - they demand reflection, and sometimes argument. At the end of my review of Fire at Strange Horizons, I said, "Cashore makes space in her work for challenging readings; indeed, she creates questions that invite them", and this remains true of Bitterblue. Like the earlier novels, Bitterblue is profoundly interested in the moral and emotional consequences of power and how children deal with the legacies of their parents; but it is also more specifically concerned with memory, truth, and the stories we tell ourselves to understand who we are.
The story's central tension is over how the land of Monsea should respond to its difficult past. Monsea is one of several kingdoms in a world where many people are born with a Grace, an exaggerated, superpower-level talent of one sort or another: things like speed, or baking, or singing. King Leck's Grace was for persuasion; as a young Bitterblue, in the novel's prologue, puts it, "When he speaks, his words fog people’s minds so that they'll believe everything he says. Usually, he lies". In Graceling, we saw Leck's downfall; in Fire, its prequel, we were shown how his ability shaped his early life, granting him instant dominance over everyone around him and thus stunting his moral growth, by denying him the need or opportunity to develop empathy. Bitterblue looks at the fall-out of a man like Leck having enjoyed, for decades, the unilateral power afforded by a throne - and it does so first and foremost through the experiences of his daughter and her mother.
The prologue is only a snapshot of how it felt for Bitterblue to be at Leck's mercy, but it is a chilling - and possibly triggering - portrait of domestic abuse, that entwining of violence and mind games:
When he grabs Mama's wrist and yanks her towards the wall-hanging like that, it must hurt. Mama doesn't cry out. She tries to hide her pain from him, but she looks back at me, and in her face, she shows me everything she feels. If Father knows she's in pain and is showing me, Father will take Mama's pain away and replace it with something else.
He will say to Mama, "Darling, nothing's wrong. It doesn't hurt, you're not frightened," and in Mama's face I'll see her doubt, the beginnings of her confusion. He'll say, "Look at our beautiful child. Look at this beautiful room. How happy we are. Nothing is wrong. Come with me, darling." Mama will stare back at him, puzzled, and then she'll look at me, her beautiful child in this beautiful room, and her eyes will go smooth and empty, and she'll smile at how happy we are. I'll smile too, because my mind is no stronger than Mama's. I'll say, "Have fun! Come back soon!" Then Father will produce the keys that open the door behind the hanging and Mama will glide through.
What Bitterblue does is broaden out the picture, letting us discover along with the now-teenage protagonist the nature and extent of the harm Leck has done, and watch his victims wrangle with each other, in near-silent agony, over how such painful facts are to be borne. The latter issue - the shaping concern of the novel - is starkly simple on the face of it, and subject to endless complications once examined more closely. Bitterblue herself longs to know the truth:
"Leck is still lodged in too many people's minds," he had said to her. "His Grace is a sickness that lingers, a nightmare you must help people to forget."
But how was forgetting possible? Could she forget her own father? Could she forget that her father had murdered her mother? How could she forget the rape of her own mind?
Others are more wary about the value of dredging up the past. The view of Bitterblue's advisors - who, far from coincidentally, were also high-level functionaries in Leck's day - is that the best way forward is not to look back:
"It's deliberate, Lady Queen," they'd told her, "a deliberate philosophy of forward-thinkingness. You're right to encourage it."
"Lady Queen," Thiel had said gently, "we’re trying to lift people out of Leck's spell and help them move on, you understand? Otherwise, people will wallow in their own upsetting stories."
There is a seductive kind of sense to this, however paternalistic and self-serving its expression. There is a very real danger that Monsea could end up consuming itself in the quest for the truth, because the nature of Leck's power was such that (coerced) complicity in his crimes was widespread ("'What did Leck ever do for himself?'", one character says to Bitterblue. "'You don't think he marched around smashing windows and grabbing books? I told you, these things were stolen by someone else.'"). There is much to be said - and much that is said, in the course of the story - for showing mercy to those who were both victims and perpetrators (tools) during the reign of terror.
And yet. As Bitterblue comes to realise, failing to confront the truth of what happened does not make that truth go away; rather, it denies victims' suffering, turning what remains of society into a house built on sand and lies, one fragile and riven with secret divisions. The community can only move on if the boil is lanced - even if that means, as for Bitterblue, discovering that people she trusts were deeply involved:
"Well," said Giddon again, "Leck is well known for his behaviour with his animals. Cutting them, letting them heal, then cutting them again. What if he liked to hurt people, then let them heal? If it was a part of the way he liked to conduct his politics - as sick as it sounds - then it would've made sense for him to have had healers at his side all the time."
"They've lied to me, you know," whispered Bitterblue. "They've told me they don't know the secret things he did, but if they were mending his victims, then they saw, plainly, what he did."
Giddon paused. "Some things are too painful to talk about, Lady Queen," he said quietly.
"I know," she said. "Giddon, I know. Asking would be unpardonably cruel. But how can I help anyone now if I don't understand what happened then? I need the truth, don't you see?"
Bitterblue is not alone in wanting to know the truth. Initially, though, she wants to know primarily because the secrets concern her own father, and she essentially sees the whole thing as a private pain to which she has a privileged access. She is aware on an abstract level that Leck also harmed others, but this is not something that factors in to her consideration of the issue. Which is why choosing to make her the focus of the novel is more than simply the fantasy genre's usual obsession with characters who hold 'rightful' inherited authority: the fact that Bitterblue is the queen means that her story is about learning that this issue is bigger than she is, and that what the people of Monsea have been through and still are going through is far beyond her own suffering.
The fact that Bitterblue does not have a grace, and must therefore rely on her own resourcefulness, intelligence, and compassion in working towards a solution, is also important. The effects of Leck are too big and too deep to be beaten up or magicked away with superpowers: what is needed is a human response to a human problem, and Bitterblue approaches it through a combination of sleuthing (amongst other things, she uses her love of mathematical problems to crack the code of Leck's encrypted journals), strength of will, and most importantly by listening to people.
In a neat thematic echo, a significant part of the process by which Bitterblue goes about investigating the past involves her lying and keeping secrets, as well as simply uncovering the secrets of others. Frustrated by the omissions and obfuscations of her advisors, the limitations of her knowledge and the restrictions of her position ("Sometimes she felt lost behind this desk in the middle of the room," we're told, "this desk that was so big for her smallness"), Bitterblue starts to sneak out into the city at night, disguising herself and - obviously - hiding her identity in order to get a different view of what is happening in her capital. She finds her way into a "story room", essentially a pub in which people gather to talk about Leck and what he did to them, and begins to eavesdrop on their stories, night after night.
This sharing - people standing up and bearing witness to what happened - is a potent and vital process because Leck's power worked in part by taking people's perceptions apart and rebuilding them to suit himself, leaving them unable to trust their own memories. As Thiel, one of Bitterblue's advisors, puts it, "[O]ne of Leck's cruelest legacies is that he left us unable to remember some things and unable to forget others. We are not masters of our minds". In a particularly difficult passage, Bitterblue reflects on how this affects what she remembers of her mother:
Her memories of Ashen were a series of snippets. Many of them were moments that had transpired in Leck's presence, which meant that Bitterblue had not even been in her right mind. When they'd been without Leck, they'd spent much of that time fighting Leck's brain fog away. Leck hadn't just stolen Ashen from Bitterblue by killing her. He'd stolen her before that, as well. Bitterblue could not imagine the person Ashen would be today, were she alive. It was not fair that she should find herself doubting, at times, how well she'd ever known her mother.
Discovering and speaking the truth, therefore, is an act of rebellion and reclaiming, an attempt to resume control over one's life and identity. As might be expected, as Bitterblue becomes more and more involved in this underground - and more and more involved, in a different sense, with Saf, an intense young man whose chosen method of responding to Leck's legacy is stealing back the stuff Leck stole during his reign, and returning it to its original owners - the lies become more of a problem.
There is a real sadness in the fact that the alternative identity Bitterblue creates for herself is someone whose mother is still alive, someone who is control of her environment and has practical skills that benefit others in tangible ways (she's a baker). Bitterblue finds herself "trapped behind unknowable things, [...] trapped behind things she knew but couldn't admit she knew". Her situation resonates ever more strongly with the arrival in Monsea of Po, who has kept his grace - mind-reading - a secret from most of the world, a clear betrayal of the trust of those closest to him, for all that it has been done for ostensibly the right reasons. Both Po and Bitterblue must eventually be confronted with the effects of their lies; here is Saf's reaction:
"You seem to have this daydream," Saf said, "that when we were spending time together and I didn't know you were the queen, we were friends. Equals. But knowledge is power. You knew you were the queen and I didn't. We have never once been equal, and as far as friendship goes," he said - then stopped. "Your mother is dead," he said in a different kind of voice, bitter, and final. "You've lied to me about everything."
"I told you things that were more precious to me than the truth," she whispered.
In general, I found Saf and Bitterblue's relationship a little less compelling than I did Katsa and Po's in Graceling, or Fire and Brigan's in Fire. Perhaps that was because it's rooted in false pretences, but it's also because Saf felt a little over-familiar, a little too much of a type: the brooding kind-of sort-of bad boy who turns up a lot as the love interest in stories about teen girls. Still, on balance I thought the way it all resolves is brave and very fitting, and the way Saf serves Bitterblue's story, bringing out by her loneliness and her hopes for the future - as woman as well as queen - is done wonderfully well:
She had an imagination, and she wasn't shy of her own body; she'd made discoveries. And she knew the mechanics of two people. Helda had explained it to her, and she was pretty sure her mother had too, a long time ago. But understanding want and understanding mechanics did not go far toward elucidating how you could invite someone else to see you, to touch you in that way.
She hoped that all the kisses of her life, and all the things beyond, would not be with lords who only wanted her money.
This is a lovely expression of self-conscious but unashamed adolescent female desire; I love the tentative, trembling, hopeful boldness of "invite someone else to see you", in particular.
The issue of secrets and lies is important not just for theme but for character. Bitterblue's story - like Fire's in Fire - is also one of choosing to learn from a parent's example, of trying to avoid repeating the mistakes and sins of the previous generation. Not unnaturally, Bitterblue sometimes fears she shares more with her father than she wants to believe, that she has learned patterns of behaviour from him - lying to get her own way, for example - even if she has not inherited his power. On her first night in a story room she sneaks out in a stolen cloak, and slips a coin from someone's change at the bar into her pocket so that she can buy herself a drink to fit in.
Throughout, Bitterblue maintains a deep and passionate sense of self-awareness and self-analysis. Even when - especially when - she has acted thoughtlessly or lashed out or misjudged something (she is, after all, a teenager still learning the world), Bitterblue knows all too well what she should have said, or works it out shortly afterwards. This is characteristic of Cashore, whose approach to storytelling could with some justice be summarised as her protagonists being very, very insightful about themselves and each other. Time and again, Bitterblue has conversations and comes away with fresh insight into those she just spoke to; she reflects carefully over what she could have done better, and refines her approach in the future. This early example is typical:
Left alone, Bitterblue shuffled papers, signed things, sneezed at the dust - tried, and failed, to talk herself out of a small shame. She'd done it on purpose. She'd known full well that he wouldn't be able to bear her question. In fact, almost all of the men who worked in her offices, from her advisers to her ministers and clerks to her personal guard - those who had been Leck's men - flinched away from direct reminders of the time of Leck's reign - flinched away, or fell apart. It was the weapon she always used when one of them pushed her too far, for it was the only weapon she had that worked.
Amid all the larger emotional notes and bursts of action in the book, these moments add up to a quieter but no less important triumph. When Bitterblue comes across a sculpture of herself, created by a captive graced sculptor back when Bitterblue was still a child and hidden away in a locked section of the palace, Cashore once again offers us a startling clarity of insight into her central character:
The sculpture-Bitterblue looked so defiant. The little soldiers on her palm were ready to defend her with their lives. Bitterblue was amazed that a sculptor had been able to imagine her that way once: so strong and certain, so steady on the earth. She knew she wasn’t those things.
This, this is what I read Cashore for: a young woman imagines herself as she wants to be, and the qualities she goes for are defiance, certainty, strength. I, too, want to be steady on the earth, and words just can't express how much I wish these books had been around for me to read when I was a teenager.
[Inevitable snarky postscript about the cover: Like Katsa on the cover of Graceling, Bitterblue has fallen prey to the 'Shadowed Anonywoman Wears Clothes That Are All Wrong For The Weather' look. I mean, seriously, not only has the poor thing gone out into the icy, storm-swept mountains in short sleeves and a cloak apparently devoid of fastenings against the cold - she hasn't even had chance to fasten the laces on her (heeled, obviously) boots. *headdesk*]