This book is a huge improvement in every way. The very writing is just leaps better than the previous books. It also stands alone well enough that I’d suggest reading it by itself – it’ll spoil the events of the other two, but you may never bother reading them and they were pretty predictable anyway.
Bitterblue opens with the titular Bitterblue as a kid before they ran away. Graceling showed Leck’s ability to convince people on the character but nothing more, Fire avoided it, and only now in the third book do we see what he actually did to people.
Her father is angry. He’s hurting her mother, and her mother is trying to be quiet because, Bitterblue explains, if she makes noise, he’ll tell her she’s not in pain and everything is fine, and then Bitterblue will believe that too. She’d smile and wave goodbye like they’re going off for a fun trip while he takes her mother off to be tortured.
And that’s exactly what Bitterblue does.
Her mother has learned ways of fighting the control that don’t rely on having your own superpower and taught Bitterblue to do math problems to clear her head. This works and there’s a moment where she’s calm because the fog of what she was told has lifted, and then she remembers what actually did happen and begins screaming uncontrollably.
And that was life in Leck’s kingdom!
We then see present Bitterblue trying to pick up the pieces of an insane country. Even those not directly affected by Leck, and he hurt an awful lot of people directly or by murdering their family members, are still damaged by years of indirect mind control and, we learn, he also was rewriting the country’s past for his own vanity. Worse, it’s so prevalent that no one even recognizes how damaged they are, because it’s become normal. Bitterblue periodically expresses that it seems like everyone around her is crazy, and they are. She’s even mapped out the madness of those she knows best, but can’t tell it’s unusual.
The flaw of the book is the storyline and characters it inherits. Midway through, Po and then Katsa arrive, and they’re incredibly jarring in both tone and the fact they shove the plot in a completely new direction. There’s also various other side characters. All of these people should be able to tell Bitterblue her own people are fucked in the head, particularly Po with his teletubby radar, and even if for some reason they didn’t just being around normal people should let Bitterblue confirm that it’s not her, it’s the rest of the kingdom that’s nuts. Both Bitterblue and the other characters should take one look at things and ask her grandfather in the neighboring kingdom to send her a whole set of new advisers to run the country.
The huge improvements are definitely evident here – Po had been fixed up so he’s got Toph-style blindness where he can’t read or see color, and a plot point will actually hinge on it. Katsa has realized she’s an unkillable one-woman police force and is now singlehandedly patrolling several kingdoms while the rest of the council managed to overthrow another evil king, and they’re not just sticking someone else on the throne but considering a parliament or something and listening to the will of the people. Another kingdom is nearing overthrow levels of abuse and the question of what to do is a major sticking point, because it’s going to happen, it’s morally right to support, but this one has no power structure to replace it and they’re worried it’ll be chaos and the neighboring also-asshole king will just annex it.
Of course, to make up for it Bitterblue’s own kingdom’s affairs don’t make too much sense. She’s allowing villages to emancipate themselves from the nobles and have a trial period to run themselves, and there just should not be any structure to handle that, or way of enforcing the taxes or anything. Worse, the emancipation thing turns out to be a plot point but not one that ever makes sense given we don’t know how it works, what the rationale was, who was sending the petitions, etc.
And to allow the other characters to be important, there’s a ridiculous amount of blindness going on from Bitterblue. One particularly annoying bit, and believe me there are many, is that Bitterblue repeatedly mentions how the librarian’s cat is hideous because of how messed up its fur is. Over and over and over she points out it looks weird, it looks like its skin doesn’t fit right, it looks patchwork. She even insults the cat’s appearance and has the librarian snarl at her for it. Yet it’s not until the guy flat out tells her at the end of the book that the scarred cat kept by a servant of the guy who liked to torture animals looks like that because her dad tortured it that she gets it.
That should give you an idea of the level of obliviousness everyone has in this story. And when they’re not being oblivious, they’re obsessing over sidetracks that don’t matter.
And the ending was much, much too pat, neatly segregating all the people who opposed Bitterblue into one isolated group who could be dealt with together and actually had pretty rational reasons. It means that in retrospect, Bitterblue’s country is far more functional than it appeared – what seemed like bouts of insanity were coverups and the people doing the coverups, while somewhat unhinged, had entirely understandable reasons, and it’ll be smooth sailing from here on out, especially because for no reason the end of the book has them also discovering Fire’s country, bringing her back, and finding out that they’d be happy to share their super medicine and stuff with her country. Bitterblue even gets her own personal insecurity soothed by verifying Leck was born to the country she’s currently ruling so she does sort of have blood connections, something that never mattered in the least to anyone at all.
(Also, there’s this recurring plot point about these beautiful statues by a now-dead sculpter and we’re told Leck wrecked a lot of them but by wrecked it turns out it’s just that they were splattered in paint so they’re actually all fine, which is jarring because all this bad stuff happened but it’s like the author can’t commit to anything really being lost. Leck’s history rewrite is also perfectly countered by the librarian knowing every change.)
Still, for much of the story it’s pretty good – you just have to ignore the eleventh-hour twist that what looked like past personal trauma manifesting in varied ways was just a lot of people all working in unison and being a bit stressed about the plot.