It took me long time to figure out what I wanted to say about Bitterblue. Mostly because I didn’t know what to say. How to sum up a book that literally spoilt all other books for me (for at least two weeks—it made my commutes to work rather unbearable).
I wanted to put my finger on what exactly it is about Bitterblue that captivated me. Was it the characters? No. The characters are incredible. Vividly drawn, realistic and heartbreaking. And for those of you who’ve read Graceling and Fire we get to see some familiar faces and we get new insight on these characters. Personally a character I really didn’t like in Graceling (Lord Giddon) became a fast favourite of mine in Bitterblue. So, was it the world? No. The world is stunning. Filled with a nation recovering not just politically and socially but mentally from a tyrannical king who had the ability to control their minds.
So what is it about Bitterblue that wouldn’t leave me?
It’s simple really. It’s the truth.
The entire book follows one girl’s quest to heal her broken people by uncovering the truth of what happened during her father’s reign and afterwards. The truth, it turns out is even more dangerous than the blankness that has invaded the minds and hearts of her people. The truth is deadly. The truth is filled with consequences, heartbreak and tears. (I’ll freely admit it, there was a part in this book where I cried like a baby).
The truth is what makes this book so extraordinary. Bitterblue is determined to speak the truth. She is determined to help the truth seekers. She is determined to heal her people not through ignorance or forward thinking or a policy of selective forgetting. She will heal her people the only way she knows how with knowledge and with the truth no matter how painful. And that’s what makes Bitterblue as a character so brave and as a book so unforgettable. She is wounded by the secrets she uncovers. She is destroyed by the truth and yet, somehow, she manages to become a stronger person and she grows from a sheltered girl into a queen at the cost of so much. She finds a way to move her people forward and out of darkness by addressing the mysteries of her father’s reign and bringing her people the truth.
If we all spoke more truths think about what a different place the world would be.
So, it’s kind of fitting that on World Book Night that we’re able to introduce you to the story rooms, the first place that Bitterblue goes to find the truth.
And, it wouldn’t be a Red, White and Bitterblue Monday without giving you a chance to win a copy of Bitterblue. We have five copies to giveaway. To enter for your chance to win a copy of Bitterblue send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line BITTERBLUE and the answer to this question: What drink does Bitterblue order in the story room? by 11.50 on the 29th April 2012. Good luck!
SHE’D NEVER SEEN the bridges close up. Despite her yearly tours, Bitterblue had never been on the streets of the east city; she only knew the bridges from the heights of her tower, looking out at them from across the sky, not even certain they were real. Now, as Bitterblue stood at the base of Winged Bridge, she ran her fingers along a seam where pieces of cold marble joined to form the gargantuan foundations.
And attracted some attention. “Move along there,” said a gruff man who’d come to the doorway of one of the dirty white stone buildings squeezed between the bridge’s pillars. He emptied a bucket into the gutter. “We’ve no need of crackpots.”
This seemed harsh for a person whose only crime was the touch ing of a bridge, but Bitterblue moved along obediently to avoid interaction. An awful lot of people were walking the streets at this hour. Every one of them gave her a fright. She skirted them when she could, pulling her hood low over her face, happy to be small.
Tall, narrow buildings leaned together, propping each other up, occasionally offering glimpses of the river in between. At every intersection, roads branched off in several directions, multiplying possibilities. She decided to stay within sight of the river for now, because she suspected that otherwise, she’d become lost and over whelmed. But it was hard not to turn down some of those streets that wound away or stretched into darkness, promising secrets.
The river brought her to the next behemoth on her list, Monster Bridge. Bitterblue was absorbing more details now, even daring to glance into people’s faces. Some were furtive and hurried, or exhausted, full of pain, and others were empty and expressionless. The buildings, many white stone, some clapboard, all washed with yellow light and rising into shadow, also impressed her, with how gaunt and run-down they seemed.
It was a misstep that landed her in the strange story place under Monster Bridge, though Leck also played a part. Hopping sideways into an alleyway to avoid a pair of large, lumbering men, she found herself trapped when the men turned into the alleyway too. She could have just pushed her way back out again, of course, but not without drawing attention to herself, so she scuttled on ahead, pre- tending she knew where she was going. Unfortunately, the alleyway ended abruptly, at a door in a stone wall, guarded by a man and a woman.
“Well?” the man said to her as she stood there in confusion. “What do you want, then? In or out?”
“I’m just going,” said Bitterblue in a whisper. “All right,” said the man. “Off you go.”
As she turned to obey, the men who’d followed her came upon them and moved past. The door opened to admit them, then closed, then opened again to release a small, cheerful group of young people. A voice escaped from inside: a deep, raspy rumble, indecipherable but melodic, a sort of voice she imagined a wizened old tree would speak with. It had the tone of someone telling a story.
And then it spoke a word she understood: Leck.
“In,” she said to the man, deciding in a mad split second. He shrugged, not seeming to care, as long as she went someplace.
And so Bitterblue followed Leck’s name into her first story room.
* * * * *
It was a pub of some sort, with heavy wooden tables and chairs and a bar, lit by a hundred lamps and packed with men and women, standing, sitting, moving about, dressed plainly, drinking from cups. Bitterblue’s relief that she had walked into nothing but a pub was so palpable that it gave her chills.
The room’s attention was fixed on a man who stood on the bar telling a story. He had a crooked face and pitted skin that turned beautiful, somehow, as he spoke. The story he told was one Bitterblue recognized but didn’t immediately trust, not because anything in the story itself seemed off, but because the man had one dark eye and one that shone pale blue. What was his Grace? A lovely speak- ing voice? Or was there something more sinister about it, something that kept this room in thrall?
Bitterblue multiplied 457 by 228 randomly, just to see how she felt afterwards. It took her a minute. 104,196. And no feeling of blankness or fog around the numbers; no sense that her mental grip on the numbers was in any way superior to her mental grip on any- thing else. It was no more than a lovely voice.
Some traffic around the entrance had shuffled Bitterblue straight to the bar. A woman stood before her suddenly, asking her what she wanted. “Cider,” Bitterblue said, grasping for something a person might want, for she didn’t suppose it was normal to ask for noth- ing. Oh—but here was a dilemma, for the woman would expect payment for the cider, wouldn’t she? The last time Bitterblue had carried money was—she couldn’t remember. A queen had no need for money.
A man beside her at the bar belched, fumbling with some coins spread before him that his fingers were too clumsy to collect.
Without thinking, Bitterblue rested her arm on the bar, letting her wide sleeve cover two of the coins closest to her. Then she slipped the fingers of her other hand under her sleeve and fished the coins into her fist. A moment later, the coins were in her pocket and her empty hand rested innocently on the bar. When she glanced around, trying to look nonchalant, she caught the eyes of a young man who was staring at her with the smallest grin on his face. He leaned on a part of the bar that was at a right angle to hers, where he had a perfect view of her, her neighbors, and, she could only assume, her transgressions.
She looked away, ignoring his smile. When the bar lady brought the cider, Bitterblue plunked her coins on the counter, deciding to trust to fate that they were the right amount. The woman picked up the coins and put a smaller coin down. Grabbing it and the cup, Bitterblue slipped away from the bar and moved to a corner in the back, where there were more shadows, a wider view, and fewer people to notice her.
Now she could lower her guard and listen to the story. It was one that she’d heard many times; it was one she’d told. It was the story—true—of how her own father had come to the Monsean court as a boy. He’d come begging, wearing an eye patch, saying nothing of who he was or where he was from. He’d charmed the king and queen with tall tales he’d invented, tales about a land where the animals were violently colored, and the buildings were wide and tall as mountains, and glorious armies rose out of rock. No one had known who his parents were, or why he wore an eye patch, or why he’d told such stories, but he’d been loved. The king and queen, childless, had adopted him as their own son. When Leck had turned sixteen, the king, having no living family, had named Leck his heir.
Days later, the king and queen were dead from a mysterious illness that no one at court felt the need to question. The old king’s advisers threw themselves into the river, for Leck could make people do things like that—or could push them into the river himself, then tell the witnesses that they’d seen something other than what they’d seen. Suicide, rather than murder. Leck’s thirty-five-year reign of mental devastation had begun.
Bitterblue had heard this story before as an explanation. She had never once heard it presented as a story, the old king and queen coming alive with loneliness and gentleness, love for a boy. The ad- visers, wise and worried, devoted to their king and queen. The story- teller described Leck partly the way he’d been and partly the way Bitterblue knew he hadn’t. He hadn’t been a person who cackled and leered and rubbed his hands together villainously like the story- teller said. He’d been simpler than that. He’d spoken simply, reacted simply, and performed acts of violence with a simple, expressionless precision. He’d calmly done whatever he’d needed to do to make things the way he wanted them.
My father, thought Bitterblue. Then she reached for the coin in her pocket suddenly, ashamed of herself for stealing. Remembering that her hood was stolen too. I also take what I want. Did I get that from him?
The young man who knew she was a thief was a distracting sort of person. He seemed to have no wish to keep still, always moving, slipping past people who shuffled aside to let him by. Easy to keep track of, for he happened to be one of the most conspicuous people in the room, both Lienid and not-Lienid at the same time.
The Lienid, almost without exception, were a dark-haired, gray- eyed people with a certain handsome set to their mouths and a cer- tain sweep to their hair, like Skye, like Po, and gold in their ears and on their fingers, men and women, nobles and citizens alike.
Bitterblue had inherited Ashen’s dark hair and gray eyes and, though its effects were rather plainer on her than on others, something of the Lienid aspect. At any rate, she looked more Lienid than this fellow did.
His hair was brown like wet sand, sun-bleached almost white at the ends, his skin deeply freckled. His facial features, though nice enough, were not particularly Lienid, but the gold studs that flashed in his ears and the rings on his fingers—those were unquestion- ably Lienid. His eyes were impossibly, abnormally purple, so that one knew at once he wasn’t just a plain person. And then, as one adjusted to his overall incongruity, one saw that of course the purple was of two different shades. He was a Graceling. And a Lienid, but he had not been born Lienid.
Bitterblue wondered what his Grace was.
Then, as he slipped past a man who was swigging from a cup, Bitterblue saw him dip into the man’s pocket, remove something, and tuck it under his arm, almost faster than Bitterblue could believe. Raising his eyes, accidentally catching hers, he saw that she saw. This time, there was no amusement in the expression he directed at her. Only coldness, some insolence, and the hint of a high-eyebrowed threat.
He turned his back to her and made his way to the door, where he placed a hand on the shoulder of a young man with floppy dark hair who was apparently his friend, for the two of them left together. Getting it into her head to see where they were going, she abandoned her cider and followed, but when she stepped out into the alley, they were gone.
Not knowing the time, she returned to the castle, but paused at the foot of the drawbridge. She had stood in this very spot once, almost eight years ago. Her feet remembered and wanted to take her into the west city, the way she’d gone with her mother that night; her feet wanted to follow the river west until the city was far behind, cross the valleys to the plain before the forest. Bitterblue wanted to stand in the spot where Father had shot Mama in the back, shot her from his horse, in the snow, while Mama tried to run away. Bitterblue hadn’t seen it. She’d been hiding in the forest, as Ashen had told her to do. But Po and Katsa had seen it. Sometimes Po described it for her, quietly, holding her hands. She’d imagined it so many times that it felt like a memory, but it wasn’t. She hadn’t been there, she hadn’t screamed the way she imagined it. She hadn’t jumped in front of the arrow, or knocked Mama out of the way, or thrown a knife and killed him in time.
A clock, striking two, brought Bitterblue back. There was noth- ing for her to the west except for a long and difficult walk, and memories that were sharp even from this distance. She pushed her- self across the drawbridge.
In bed, exhausted, yawning, she couldn’t understand, at first, why she wasn’t falling asleep. Then she felt it, the streets thick with people, the shadows of buildings and bridges, the sound of the stories and the taste of cider; the fright that had pervaded all she’d done. Her body was thrumming with the life of the midnight city.