Bitterblue, Kristen Cashore

Last week was the invasion of the travel memoirs, and this week, post-vacation, is all about sequels. I have been waiting for Kristen Cashore’s sequel to Graceling and Fire since Amazon popped up with the notification that I could (nay, must) pre-order back in December. I’d read the first two right after Fire was published in February of 2011 and loved them both. She is such a gifted new writer (well, as “new” as one can be after publishing her third book in as many years – I happen to consider that new) in the YA field, and while I wasn’t expecting another book after Fire (which is technically a prequel to Graceling), she managed to bowl me over with this latest effort.

Did you catch all that? Graceling was published first, but falls second according to the timeline of these three books, while Fire comes earliest, but ties in especially well with what happens in BitterblueHonestly though, if I had enough hours in the day, I would have reread all of them (possibly in chronological order this time, rather than by publication date) because each book is unique (and terrifying) in its own way.

The thing is, I find it difficult to write about sequels here, mainly because I’m very anti-spoiler, and to really give Bitterblue the attention it deserves, I should reveal major plot twists from the first two books. I don’t want to do that to you though; I personally can’t even handle reading reviews for movies in the newspaper for fear of any impression leaking through to ruin the experience (and movies are only a two-hour commitment – books require so much more, time-wise, that I’m even more hesitant to accidentally blurt out a major spoiler – I am still jet legged, after all).

Consequently, you’re just going to have to trust that even if I don’t give you all the juicy details, YA lovers should hit up their nearest library or book store as soon as possible and hunker down for a week of getting absolutely nothing done. They are really that good. (I mean, I was in Europe and still had a hard time pulling my nose out of my book long enough to appreciate the history and delicious food all around me…although somehow, for good German beer, I always found a little time…seriously, why is their beer so good? Is it because it was originally made by monks? Some sort of direct hops line to God?)

Anyway, what pleased me most about this latest novel by Cashore was that she took a totally different approach from that of most fantasy novels (YA or otherwise), including her previous two books. Certainly, Bitterblue has enough action to satisfy a younger reader, but it also spends a lot of time investigating emotional trauma, and how deep psychological damage cannot be easily erased even after its victims have been free of their abuser for years. This is a topic covered more extensively in what I consider “real-life”  YA (and to be frank, even as a teenager I hated those books – not because they weren’t relevant or well-written, but because I found them disturbing on a level I just couldn’t process). I love that this is where the novel went though; it felt so right for the series as a whole, as well as being a fresh idea for a genre that often ignores issues like this in favor of tidy outcomes.

I’m also thrilled that when Cashore writes such vicious villains (really, stomach-churningly evil), she manages to keep them from becoming completely two-dimensional. Many fantasy novels have compelling heroes and villains, but too often, the characters lack shades of grey, or at the very least, properly investigated motives for who they have become. In life, people certainly don’t spring out into the world fully formed as champions of light or darkness; it’s through a combination of personality, mental health, and circumstances that they make the choices they do, thus becoming the characters who populate our lives (and our novels). Most of my favorite writers have a deft touch integrating adventure with realism – the circumstances may be outlandish, but the characters draw from a true well of human emotion – and with this third installation, Cashore has proven she deserves a spot on my book shelves for good.

To find out more about Kristin Cashore, go here.

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