In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thought-provoking YA fantasy

Dear Aunt Debbie,

In the excitement of Will's newborn baby state and our busy spring, we skipped right over our third anniversary! That's right, as of last month we've been writing Annie and Aunt for three years.  And there are still so many books to write about....

A couple of years ago, in search of alternatives to the Twilight series (which you know I don't like), you mentioned a couple of YA novels by Kristin Cashore: Graceling and Fire.
(Full disclosure: Kristin Cashore and I both went to Williams College, and have mutual friends, though I didn't know her there.)

I finally picked up Graceling, had a pleasantly obsessive read, and followed it up with Cashore's third book, Bitterblue.  I didn't mean to read them out of order, but was confused by the publisher's choice to put an excerpt from Bitterblue at the end of Graceling. You don't need to read Fire before Bitterblue for it to make sense (and I know you weren't a fan of Fire), but there's a character payoff at the end of Bitterblue that I think would have been more fun if I had read Fire first.

While Fire is a prequel or companion book to Graceling, Bitterblue is more of a sequel: there's a different main character, but many of the characters in Graceling return here. Spoiler alert -- in writing about Bitterblue, I will by necessity reveal some plot points from Graceling.

Queen Bitterblue, who appeared in Graceling as a ten-year-old girl, is now eighteen, and trying to bring her kingdom of Monsea back to some kind of normalcy after the death of her father, King Leck. Leck was Graced with the ability to make people think and feel what he told them to -- to have all his lies believed -- and was an astoundingly manipulative and evil man.  Though Leck's reign of terror ended eight years earlier, Bitterblue is just starting to understand what a mess he's left, and how much she doesn't know about what happened under his rule.

Bitterblue herself is not a Graceling -- she has no special powers, though she does grow in knowledge and strength throughout the book, as a good YA heroine should.  The Gracelings around her are physically recognizable by their eyes, which are two different colors.  Each has an extreme talent, some more fantastic than others: the ability to read minds, or tremendous physical strength, or the ability to know what a person would most like to eat at the present moment. Gracelings have to figure out what their Graces are, which is easier for some than for others.  It's a nice metaphor for different intelligences.

Cashore knows how to move a plot forward and create suspense, and Bitterblue is sprinkled with effective moments of decoding -- ciphers play a large role in the unraveling of the mystery.  What I find most compelling about the book, however, is the way Cashore gets you thinking about culpability.  Many people committed crimes while under Leck's influence.  Is it fair to hold them responsible for their actions?  Is the way forward to silence discussion of the terrors of the past and the lives lost, or to delve into them and talk about the truth?  The people in Bitterblue's castle, who worked closely with her father before serving her, refuse to talk about the past.  Bitterblue seeks out friends in her city who are, as she is, interested in exposing what really happened.  There's a human cost to either way of proceeding, which Cashore renders in realistic ways.  I found myself thinking about South Africa at the end of apartheid, or Rwanda after the genocide -- how do you come to terms with horrors committed by people who now must live together peacefully?

Many of Leck's crimes have a sexual element: under his reign, hundreds of young girls were stolen from their families and disappeared.  Cashore is thoughtful about gender, creating strong female characters in all walks of life, and with different kinds of strength, but placing them in a world where violence against women is a palpable threat.  (I should add that she draws a number of kinds of men as well, and that several of her nicest characters are gay.)  This is a patriarchy familiar to those of us who live in the real world.

I'm left thinking, and looking forward to Cashore's next book.

Love, Annie

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