Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, narrated by Emma Powell

BitterblueWhy I read it:  I’ve had this one on my TBL for a little while and decided to sneak it in between review books.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea, still under the influence of her father Leck, a violent psychopath who altered minds. Her advisers want to pardon evildoers and forget everything, but she sees the past holds fast. Two thieves, who only steal what has been stolen, hold the truth and change her life. One, his Grace skill unidentified, has a key to her heart.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  Oh, so many things to say!

I’ll start with the narration because I’m far less conflicted about that. It was superb.  Emma Powell doesn’t have/use a super deep voice for her male characters, but she manages to imbue each with enough difference and enough about what makes them that particular character (which is in part due to the writing which provides those details) that almost all are easily differentiated.  I found it hard to identify Rood from Runimood (apologies if I have the spelling wrong – I only listened and haven’t seen these names in print). Perhaps Prince Sky was hard to differentiate from Po – but Sky was in the story for such a short time, it wasn’t a problem.  Saf has a Lienid accent (which Powell does as Welsh) and is similar to Po but so different a character, it was easy to tell them apart.  Katsa has a more brash tone than Bitterblue and the elderly characters have a convincing wobble to their voices. I noticed subtleties when listening that enhanced the experience beyond what it could have been just reading.  Tones that were perfect but which I wouldn’t have thought to give certain words or phrases.  The subtext was also clearly delivered by the emotions in the narration.

Ahoy! Thar be spoilers!  Read on at own risk.

As for the story, well, I was expecting a romance. The first two books in the series had a strong romantic element and a HEA.  I didn’t think it was unreasonable to think I would get the same here.  I was wrong. I cannot sufficiently express my disappointment that this occurred.

I think the story isn’t really about Bitterblue.  It’s about how Monsea began healing from the rule of King Leck, which ended some eight years before the beginning of this book.  Taken that way, it does have an optimistic ending but there is a lot of grief and blood to get through before that can happen.  I imagine it’s not unlike the kind of healing which was necessary after WWII in Germany (and I don’t mean that in any flip way). There is a deep melancholia to the story, one that surpasses anything in the previous stories.

As to the romantic relationship, I actually could have accepted (without much difficulty) a romance between Bitterblue and Giddon and it would have been less of a problem in terms of class difference.  I did feel like there was a romantic subtext to their interactions and that they could easily have had a deeply satisfying and companionable, peaceful relationship.  I don’t know about sexual tension but there seemed to me, to be a romantic tone to their obvious deep affection.  On the other hand, the relationship between Bitterblue and Saf was very obviously sexual and romantic but the problems of the differences in their stations were insurmountable.  At least, there was no attempt to overcome those hurdles in the text.

I might also add that it says something about how unsuccessful a romance arc was for me when for a significant portion of the book I found it difficult to tell who the romantic partners were.

In terms of the story itself, it all made sense except I did have a question about Holt – he seemed at once to be working for the Council and also working with the four royal advisors to silence the Truthseekers.  At one point he seemed to also be associated with the Truthseekers and I couldn’t quite reconcile those things.

I think the pacing was slower than in previous books but I also felt it was a meatier book – it had so much to say and so many things to do, so many…. blood vessels to cauterise. I think, with the exception of the romantic arc, the storylines were wrapped up sufficiently well – not in neat little bows but by the end, Monsea was clearly on a strong path to healing and repair.

I had such high expectations for this book.  Many of my friends found this book to be the best one in the series.  For me, it was the least satisfying.  I was tremendously let down by what I believed (wrongly) to be the inherent promise of the story.  I don’t know that I would have started listening had I known.  By the time I began to suspect things weren’t going to end well and I sought out spoilers, I was hooked on the story and the narration and so, continued, even knowing there would be no HEA.  I think my reaction would have been even stronger had I not prepared myself beforehand.  I expect there would have been iPod damage and as my son, the budding gamer says: ragequit.

What else? There were a lot of good things about the story.  The worldbuilding was excellent, the characterisations wonderful and the narration superb. But I am a romance reader and when there is a romance in a book I’m reading or listening to, I want a HEA/HFN.  I do not want to read stories where the romance goes nowhere, fails or is incomplete.

While I am hoping that Cashore writes another in the series and that one day Bitterblue will get her HEA (with whom I have no clue – I think I’d still be fine with Giddon you know) and that the next book will have a HEA for the main characters, I don’t think I have enough trust in this author anymore to take it on faith.  I will be killing fairies (TM Book Thingo) left, right and centre and I won’t buy or read or listen until I know there’s a HEA.

My friends who provided spoilers to me told me they were okay with the ending of Bitterblue.  I was not. I felt cheated and the wonderment of the story was significantly tarnished by the lack of HEA.  By the lack of even a sniff of a HFN. Nobody dies. But that’s about the best I can say about it – and for me, that’s not nearly enough.

In the joint review of the new Jeannie Lin book, The Jade Temptress over at Dear Author, Jayne says this:

The challenge of how to resolve all the various impediments to their future life together is formidable. But Lin is a master at this and solve the roadblocks in believable ways using the strengths and talents of the people she’s created.

That’s what I wanted here. Yes, the impediments to a HEA with Saf were formidable. Yes, Giddon is 9 years older than Bitterblue.  But I wanted these roadblocks (with either potential “hero”) to be resolved in a believable way (and I would have preferred less ambiguity over the identity of the “hero” – here I believe that even though Bitterblue only had sex with Saf, either Saf or Giddon would work in that role).  I understand that many people think the (lack of) romantic ending was right for the characters.  But I wanted more.  I wanted what Jayne talks about above. And I believe that Cashore has the writing chops to deliver – and this only led to me being more disappointed; because I don’t think she wrote herself into a corner she couldn’t get out of. I think she’s a better writer than that.

I would give an A to the narration.  The grade for the story is much harder. On the one hand I can acknowledge that the book has many strengths, some beautiful writing, tight plotting and excellent characterisations (for the most part). And, for those who don’t require a happy romantic ending, I suspect it would rate very highly indeed.  But in the end, it let me down a lot.  Weighing it all up, I can’t really settle on a grade which encompasses all my feelings about the book well enough.  It isn’t a D because the strengths were very strong (although graded on the romance alone, it would certainly be a D for me).  It isn’t a B because that signifies an enjoyment I did not feel at the end (and the more I think about it the less happy I get). And C doesn’t feel exactly right either for much the same reasons.  But that’s the closest I can get, so it’s a C. Minus.

Grade: C-


*The buy links are for the paperbacks but the audiobook is available from Amazon or Audible

4 comments on “Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore, narrated by Emma Powell

  1. Amy Kathryn

    I feel even better about my decision to give up on this one after reading this review. I tried several times to read Bitterblue but knowing the tone of the book (I am a total spoiler girl and proud end reader) I could not immerse myself in it like I did with Graceling and Fire. I need a payoff for my characters be it HFN or HEA so I can move on to the next story. It was a big book and there were too many others calling my name to force myself to read it just because it was in a series I enjoyed and I might get a glimpse of favored characters.

  2. Marg

    It feels like we waited so long for this book, and then it just wasn’t quite there! I agree that this one was a slower book with more density and I still like the world building. The main thing I liked was seeing the characters from the earlier books!

  3. Kaetrin

    @Amy Kathryn: If HEA/HFN is not a big deal then I’d say go for it, but if you’re like me, then no. It just wasn’t satisfying. If she ever revisits the world and gives Bitterblue a HEA, then maybe…

    @Marg: There were so many things I liked about it but I’m a romance reader first and foremost – and in the end, it couldn’t satisfy me.

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