I picked up a shiny new copy of Graceling from the library shelf, and was enthralled from page one. The novel pulled me in so fast and hard that I did not spend much time looking for flaws, but I remember feeling at the time that this might a first novel phenomenon - glowing with passion and maybe the desperation of years of trying to publish. On one hand there is the author who seasons and deepens with age, and on the other there is the author who has a single story to tell and then, finding fortune, continues writing.
Perhaps that is too harsh, but that is how I feel about both Fire and Bitterblue. Bitterblue was rambling, the story set up as a puzzle but without any of the sense of mystery and discovery, or movement, that a puzzle should have. While the subject matter is adult - sexual and psychological abuse, espionage, politics, sexual relationships, self injury, suicide, etc. - the tone is simplistic and juvenile.
The character Bitterblue was more a conduit for events around her than an individual personality - a relatable but bland character. She did not comport herself with any of the subtlety or circumspection I would expect from someone raised to be a queen. Her love interest, Sapphire, was constantly dragged into the story without actually being relevant to it, and that felt forced. When, in the end, his Grace is discovered and he suddenly becomes very relevant to Bitterblue and her reign, the story doesn't even touch the possibility of his use/abuse by the crown. I assume this is because Bitterblue is too compassionate and high-minded to use the people around her, but that really doesn't help me see her as a queen.
A number of the peripheral characters seemed placed mainly to interact with Bitterblue, rather than to have their own lives and motivations. While her advisers did have their own lives, they were so cripplingly broken by their past that I wonder who has been running the kingdom for the past 10 or so years since the King's death. Some of the peripheral characters were characters from previous novels, and as another reviewer has commented, I was disappointed at the lack of growth in Katsa and Po.
The huge exception to this rule was Giddon, whom readers will remember (none too fondly) from Graceling. He had obviously grown up between that book and this, and was dealing with his own life. The moments when his story intersected with the novel were the most gripping and heartbreaking of the book, but those moments were all too brief.
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