Author: Kristin Cashore
Spoiler-free, except if you haven’t read Graceling then the Bitterblue section will spoil some things, because that’s how sequels work.
If you’re looking for these on the shelves, the top row of the header image has the US/CAN covers, the bottom row is for UK/AUS/NZ. I included both because I believe the UK covers much more accurately capture the series vibe. Honestly, the US Bitterblue cover always reminds me of toy keys when in truth it’s the heaviest book of the three.
Also, I’ve found it’s not a rare occurrence for someone to DNF (did not finish) Graceling and give up on the whole series. I was one of those people until this January. If this applies to you, KEEP READING. There is valuable information for you in the section on Fire. And if you did like Graceling, then you’re good for whole dealio. With that, away we go!
If your eyes are two different colors, it means you’re a Graceling. Graces can manifest in any number of ways, from useful abilities like enhanced fighting, archery or cooking to the purely mundane, like being an exceptional tree climber. Orphan Katsa’s Grace is killing, making her a valuable tool for her uncle, King Randa. Katsa, however, is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with being the king’s pawn. When a member of another kingdom’s royal family is kidnapped and Katsa is set on the case, she struggles to forge a path to freedom and peace in a world beset by tyranny and the abuse of power.
To be perfectly upfront, I did not find Graceling to be a spectacular book on its own. It’s a pretty standard adventure story that focuses more on the hero/heroine pairing of Katsa and Po (a Graced fighter who accompanies her on her quest) rather than embracing the full world, which the other two books do a much better job of. Author Kristin Cashore also takes a lot of flack* for creating a heroine who explicitly doesn’t want to have children, but it’s actually Katsa’s views on marriage that I don’t think hold water. I am all for people not having kids if they don’t want to. I do not, however, agree with someone refusing to see marriage as anything other than a stifling trap and then proceeding to enjoy the sexual benefits of the other gender with a purposeful lack of commitment. Not every man in Katsa’s world wants to lock her up in the kitchen, but she refuses to even consider that possibility, which thoroughly irks me. And yes, I am married. Cashore has also admitted she committed a foul when she downplayed a character’s disability (and I won’t say more because spoilers), but by the time she had that revelation the book had already been published.
If this book doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, please KEEP READING at least through the section on Fire.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that Fire is a completely different (and better) beast than Graceling. It’s technically a companion novel that takes place in a completely different land a few decades before Graceling. The only overlap is a single character; this individual is a child in Fire and an adult with a prominent role in Graceling. While you could skip straight to Fire, I always prefer going in publication order. If you’re one of the Graceling DNFers, my recommendation would be to read a detailed plot summary of Graceling (the Wikipedia page covers all the necessary points) and then move on to Fire.
Lady Fire lives in the Dells, a land plagued by monsters. But where you might normally picture monsters as hideous creatures, these creatures are brilliantly colored in what I always pictured akin to a psycho Photoshop job. Their presence also has a debilitating effect on human sensibilities, entrancing their prey for an easy kill.
However, the monsters aren’t just animals – Fire and her deceased father represent the last of the human monsters. Much like Katsa dislikes how her Grace gives her a brutish reputation, Fire tries to mitigate the unnaturally heightened effects her brilliant red hair and stunning appearance have on everyone she meets. In addition, she has a certain degree of access to people’s minds that she can’t help, yet recognizes as an intense invasion of privacy.
When Fire is summoned to the capital, she is unwillingly thrust into a web of political machinations that all seem to be leading toward war. This book does a much better job of painting a picture of the kingdom as a whole, though there were a few sections involving war council discussions that I basically snoozed through (I listened to all of these as audiobooks). There also seemed to be more well-developed characters than in Graceling – everyone in the royal family, along with a few of Fire’s guards, all played important roles and had fully fleshed-out personalities and motivations. Just don’t try to draw a family tree, though, because it is BANANAS.
Something I appreciated about this book is that it doesn’t dismiss romantic dalliances as harmless. Fire’s lifelong friend Lord Archer is quite the lady’s man, but we actually see the pain caused by his fleeting attachments, something I feel doesn’t happen often enough with suave noble-type gentleman rogues. Fire’s, ahem, menstruation is also addressed frankly, which is almost never included in YA fantasy other than the vague “anti-pregnancy herbs” that always seem to be on hand. She also has made a decision to be child-free, but for a different reason than Katsa. Fire longs to have children, but understands that passing on her hypnotic monster genes would be dangerous not just for the child, but for the kingdom.
In short, Fire is a complex, fascinating book that I enjoyed 1000% more than Graceling and you should absolutely give it a try.
Hearing how Bitterblue delivers a deep and powerful story of healing and trauma recovery was what inspired me to finally plow through Graceling, so if that’s your thing, then go ahead. Otherwise, I’d quit here because of Graceling spoilers.
Bitterblue is the direct sequel to Graceling, but you should definitely have read Fire as well, or a lot of things will go *whoosh* right over your head. It takes place 8 years after the events of Graceling, when then-10-year-old Princess Bitterblue found herself suddenly elevated to Queen following the death of her psychotic father. Now 18, Bitterblue is still struggling to get a handle on things in her kingdom. Thanks to her father’s extraordinarily potent memory-altering abilities, she and her people are slowly awakening from decades of being forced to believe that everything was sunshine and roses, when in truth he was a cruel, sadistic king.
Bitterblue has to navigate the delicate balance between healing and knowing as she guides her kingdom forward. Recovering from the trauma of her father’s cruel reign requires a delicate balance between reconstructing an accurate history and being sensitive to the horrors she and others witnessed. Katsa, Po, and a few other characters I won’t spoil serve as mentors to the young queen, but she largely stands on her own. She’s not a queen that’s willing to pass the buck; we feel the weight and loneliness of her position.
Bitterblue is by far the heaviest book of the three, and speaks powerfully to the slow, uncertain, painful healing of trauma victims. I believe Cashore does an admirable job of handling extremely sensitive issues like abuse, coercion, suicide and depression. She consulted with therapists as part of her research and, at the aforementioned talk I attended, gave the example of a modern war veteran who said the story helped him connect with his own experiences following deployment. I could write a whole post on the different pieces of Bitterblue’s healing process we see, but that’s something for another day. It’s got a lot of tough parts, and acknowledges that there is no quick and easy band-aid fix for any of the issues represented. That being said, this book also refuses to fall into a total black hole. Readers are left with hope for the future, even while knowing that reaching the light may involve a long, hard climb out of the dark.
I hope this gives you a good idea of what the Graceling Realms books are about, and if they may be right for you. It can be super hard to know what backlist books are worth reading (these are 2008, 2009 and 2012) when there’s a constant flood of new releases coming out. But on the plus side, all these books are published, so there’s no waiting period for the next installment! Because let’s be real – that’s the worst. Happy reading!
*I heard her say all that follows at an event; I’m not just inventing her life experiences.