Bitterblue is a difficult and powerful read. It follows the character of Bitterblue as she grows into her power as the queen of Monsea, and it also follows the healing process of her fractured realm, dealing with all kinds of trauma inflicted by Bitterblue’s father, Leck. There’s a lot going on here, and while there are lighter moments like Katsa’s relationship with Po, there’s a lot of serious things going on. Bitterblue has her own trauma to recover from, related to the way her father treated her mother, and she finds that the people around her — people she thought she could trust — are damaged, and are willing to do anything to smooth over the terrible things that they did under King Leck’s rule.
Seriously: trauma. Of all kinds. A lot of it deals with issues of consent and control; Leck was capable of making people believe anything he told them to believe, so he came up with narratives that made people do terrible things. He got what he wanted, and what he wanted was dark and monstrous, and that’s what he made people.
It ties in with Graceling, of course, but also with Fire; it turns out that some of Leck’s motivations are to be found in the events and characters of Fire, and we see the main character of Fire herself come to speak to Bitterblue and ally with her. There’s a lot of interaction between all the three books — more than were apparent between Graceling and Fire, I think — and that means a major theme of Graceling is also explored: Po’s abuse of the trust of people around him because he is to some degree a mindreader. Giddon’s character is developed more, and honestly, I love him.
It’s not an easy read, and I haven’t covered the half of it — Bitterblue also has a sort of romance with Saf, a Lienid thief, and again there’s all kinds of issues of truth and trust there. There’s also the same respect for the female characters’ decisions as regards — well, everything, but including their decisions about sex and relationships. Bitterblue is a queen, but in this world she is not expected to be pure and chaste and sell herself off to the highest bidder. It’s kind of refreshing to find that in fantasy, along with the discussion of contraception used, etc.
I do recommend it, but tread gently if you have triggers; I think some of the descriptions of trauma are very on point.