Eight years after Graceling, Bitterblue is now queen of Monsea. But the influence of her father, a violent psychopath with mind-altering abilities, lives on. Her advisors, who have run things since Leck died, believe in a forward-thinking plan: Pardon all who committed terrible acts under Leck’s reign, and forget anything bad ever happened. But when Bitterblue begins sneaking outside the castle—disguised and alone—to walk the streets of her own city, she starts realizing that the kingdom has been under the thirty-five-year spell of a madman, and the only way to move forward is to revisit the past. Two thieves, who only steal what has already been stolen, change her life forever. They hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, with an extreme skill called a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart.
I knew while reading the prologue that I was going to love this one. I loved Graceling, after all, and Bitterblue was one of the best characters. She also has one of the hardest journeys, from abused princess, to orphan, to eighteen-year-old Queen. Her advisers keep secrets and hide truths from her, and I suspected some trace of Leck’s Graced influence remained with his subjects even after he was gone. When Bitterblue goes out roving, and meets Saf and Teddy, she discovers all sorts of things that were shielded from her in the castle, and she starts unraveling little mysteries here and there. Teddy and Saf call her Sparks, and she keeps her real identity hidden. She saves Teddy’s life at one point, and then? Po and Katsa show up. I lovePo and Katsa, and they are perfect in this novel, not just together but as themselves. We also see Giddon again, and he’s an interesting character too. There is a Council out to reform the seven kingdoms, and Bitterblue is a Council sympathizer. She has her own spies, but she’s still in the dark about a lot of things. Her memories of her childhood are sketchy because of Leck’s memory magic (which makes me think of Barron in the Curse Workers novels).
Everyone is on edge in this one. Po and Katsa are fighting, Giddon and Po are fighting, people are being killed in Bitterblue City. Someone is trying to kill “truthseekers,” people like Teddy, Saf, and their sisters. Bitterblue is more ignorant of how life works in her city than a commoner is. She’s spending her time rereading childhood books to regain her memories, while her advisers continue to keep secrets. Saf, who steals items Leck stole himself, becomes a confidante of Bitterblue’s and you can feel something forming between them before the inevitable happens. Saf is brought before the High Court for something he didn’t do, and he discovers Bitterblue’s secret. He’s understandably angry, thinking Bitterblue was manipulating him, lying to him, trying to ferret out his secrets. He even calls her a bitch, which Po doesn’t really like. He says a lot of things to Bitterblue that make her think, like about the reality of her station and wealth compared to that of Saf. Po says she broke his heart, and maybe she did. I felt for Saf a lot here, but I also feel for Bitterblue. They’re both lost with no real way of being found.
What really made me happy was how little Bitterblue moped over Saf. She hardly does at all, really. She’s eighteen, but she’s a queen and she knows it. She keeps her head on straight and does what she has to do. I hate the moping heroine trope (I almost set New Moon on fire, not even kidding), and I am so happy that strong, feisty Bitterblue doesn’t become a weeping mess over a boy. I missed Saf in his absence though. His banter with the queen was cute and interesting. I couldn’t dwell on that for very long though, because when the plot gets going, it really moves.
The ending kind of wrecked me, because it’s not exactly happy. It’s not sad either, but it’s not something you come to expect in love stories. This novel, of course, is no love story. It’s a tale of discovery, horror, lies, and adventure. I really loved this book, maybe even more than I loved Graceling. If you loved the first two novels in this series, reading this one is essential, but prepare yourself for a lot of heartache and tears.